Macon State students study native pollinators

Before 8 a.m. on a summer morning, three students settle into chairs in the middle of a broad field overlooking Macon State College. Cameras ready, they stare intently at the numbered flowering plants at their feet.

This garden is also a diner, and they are awaiting customers.

After a while a fly stops by for a sip of nectar from a fringed Stoke’s aster. The purple flowers produce so much of the sweet elixir that one fly stays for more than an hour in the same bloom.

But the visitation has been sparse this morning. Junior Teyricia Walker of Macon jokes, “So far everything’s been attracted to my shirt.” Seconds later, a small bee flies right into her.

When a little skipper butterfly lands on one of the flowers, the students gasp, “We’ve got something!”

The biology majors, part of a Macon State research class, are studying which native plant species attract the most native insects to carry pollen from one plant to another.

Professor Kim Pickens, who co-teaches a biology research class with professor Dawn Sherry, said the research is urgent because of the drastic decline in European honey bees due to colony collapse disorder.

Scientists have not found the cause of colony collapse, although parasites and insecticides have been implicated in the disorder, which began killing off U.S. hives in 2006.

Although honey bees aren’t native to North America, there are more than 4,000 species of native bees that live mostly in small holes in the ground instead of hives.

“At least 80 percent of our crop species must be pollinated for fruit,” Pickens noted. “With us losing a lot of the honey bees, we need to focus more on native pollinators like small bees, ants, flies and beetles.”

The students snap photos of all the insects that hold still long enough, and biology professor Jeff Burn helps them identify the difficult ones.

Last year, students did a precursor study to identify Middle Georgia plants that might attract the most pollinators, Pickens said. This semester they planted the small garden near Columbus Road with asters and mountain mint. In spring, they’ll probably try out blueberries and Carolina jessamine, Pickens said.

The students have monitored the garden’s insect visitors for a few hours every morning, with plans to switch to an evening monitoring schedule, said senior Penny Rogers.

“I’m learning how our future’s going to work in terms of food,” said Rogers, of Warner Robins. “People have brought in exotic plants and so we’re losing native pollinators. But if the honeybees do disappear, we’ve got to have a way of pollinating our food, and hand pollinating would be way too expensive.”

Rogers and senior Lisa Kuhns are among five Georgia students to receive scholarships to attend a native plant conference in North Carolina, where they will present a poster depicting their results, Rogers said.

She said the research course, required for biology majors, is also teaching her how to explain biological research to the general public. The college’s walking trail passes near the garden, and joggers sometimes stop to ask, “Are you watching the flowers grow?” Rogers said.

Walker sketches the asters as she waits for insects to stop by. She is a biology major because of her interest in veterinary medicine. “This is a learning experience because I don’t know that much about plants, but my teacher really got me into it,” she said.

The pollinator study has already yielded some surprises, Pickens said. “Last year bee balm didn’t attract any bees,” she said. Overall, she added, “We were kind of surprised at the amount of ants we’ve had and the number of native bees there are.”

Pickens said she hopes the research can continue for years and be used to encourage gardeners to plant more native species.

In the long term, she’d like to see studies measure the value of planting native plants interspersed with crops such as peaches, she said.

Information from The Telegraph’s archives was used in this report.

To contact writer S. Heather Duncan, call 744-4225.