Protecting Pollinator Populations
University of Idaho Extension leads bee survey efforts to sustain pollinator populations in Idaho
Idaho’s varied agriculture relies on special helpers vital to crop production: bees.
Southwest Idaho is home to more than 400 native bee species and crops like alfalfa, pinto beans or fruit trees — as well as backyard gardens and orchards that thrive because of these pollinators. However, bee ecosystems exist in a delicate balance. Knowing about the threats to bee habitats may help prevent their decline.
That’s why University of Idaho Extension Educator Brad Stokes started a bee survey, cataloging what species of bees are found at different times of the year and at different elevations in Elmore County. Based on his findings, he hopes to show the region’s producers what they can do to help sustain pollinator populations.
“We want to see if the data can tell us if there are recommendations we should make, like based on the bee community in an area during certain months, we might adjust how much pesticide we use during that time of the year,” Stokes said.
Recommendations might also promote more biodiversity in nectar and wildflower resources that the agricultural community already plants near fields to feed native bees when crops aren’t in flower.
“The amount of knowledge coming from the survey should be incredible,” Stokes said.
Bee Survey Research Project
The Bee Survey Research Project consisted of a 100-mile trap network documenting wild bee species in Elmore County in 2018. It incorporated four different ecosystems (agriculture, rangeland, urban and forest) as well as elevation differences from 2,400 feet to 5,200 feet across the county.
“Our landscape is diverse,” Stokes said. “It represents southwest Idaho in a way. We should be able to make observations from Elmore County that link to the entirety of southwest Idaho.”
The goal of the project is to document different species of pollinators, specifically bees, in each ecosystem and elevation. Though we often think of bees actively pollinating in spring, Stokes wanted a comprehensive representation of how pollinator species complexes cycle and change through the year in different areas. Stokes and his team set traps in 12 locations on three different dates selected for cataloging pollinators.
“The data set is massive,” Stokes said. “We gathered over 1,200 individuals and are cataloging them by genus and species.”
The gathered information will help researchers know more about what type of species inhabit any given area and which flowers those species choose to pollinate.
“As you increase elevation, there are different native plants and potential of different species complexes of pollinators,” Stokes said. “We could see if that ecosystem harbors an even sweep of bees.”
Stokes is analyzing the data and hopes to establish a baseline data set for Idaho’s pollinators.
“Pollinator decline affects Idahoans, and we can’t say something is changing over time unless we understand what bee species we have now,” Stokes said.
Stokes will publish his finding in scientific journals and also plans to duplicate the survey in 10 years to compare the bee-species changes in southern Idaho to tell a deeper story.
Being pollinator-conscious is necessary for habitat biodiversity that directly affects the agriculture industry and conservation efforts in Idaho’s vast public lands. It also affects many Idahoans’ home gardens, landscapes and small farms. Stokes hopes that the bee survey will yield information that could improve environmental practices that help southwest Idaho in urban and agriculture settings.
“Biodiversity of insects is incredible in Idaho,” Stokes said. “And more wildflowers in native plant areas have better bee biodiversity. We might find that we want to incorporate planting more native plants in our urban areas to provide nectar resources to our wild bee species.”
However, lack of information on pollinators can lead to mistrust of the insects. Some see them as pests and try to eradicate them through pesticides. Mountain Home Mayor Rich Sykes reached out to Stokes after a few citizens began complaining about bees. This led to a chance to educate the public through events like Pollinator Awareness Day. At this event, UI Extension staff provided information on pollinator types, benefits and conservation efforts.
“Extension’s job is to educate,” Stokes said. “If someone fears bees, we describe why they are actually good for our habitat and native environment.”
So far, the community has been receptive. In 2018, Mountain Home became a Bee City USA affiliate. Bee City USA is a national nonprofit helping communities promote pollinators through pesticide-free habitats rich with native plants. The city council assisted Stokes in creating the Mountain Home Pollinator Committee to facilitate conservation efforts and promote pollinator friendliness. UI Extension Master Gardeners and the city of Mountain Home even distributed wildflower seed packets on Arbor Day in the hopes of establishing pockets of bee-friendly flower beds throughout the city.
In July 2019, Stokes and the Mountain Home City Council joined Monarch City USA, a nonprofit promoting milkweed planting as nectar and larval resources for monarch butterflies, Idaho’s state insect.
“Everything is interconnected,” Stokes said. “Pollinator conservation is important to Idahoans and our heritage.”
Article by Aubrey Stribling, University of Idaho Extension
Photos by Brad Stokes, University of Idaho Extension
Published in August 2019.