Written by Mallory Mead
My name is Mallory Mead, and I am new to the Garden Ecology Lab! I am an undergrad studying Horticulture and minoring in Entomology, and I started a few weeks ago as an assistant to Jen Hayes on her study of pollinator attraction to native plants and nativars.
I enrolled in Oregon State’s URSA Engage program, which gives undergrads a taste of research experience in the Winter and Spring of their first year, and joined a project studying how mason bees might be impacted by climate change with Dr. Jim Rivers of the department of Forest Ecosystems and Society. The study seeks to examine the effects of warming temperatures on mason bee behavior and the development of brood.
The Western US’s native species of mason bee, the Blue Orchard Bee (BOB) is known to be an excellent orchard pollinator. On many orchard crops they are more efficient at pollination than honey bees on a per individual basis, and so the commercial management of BOBs is being explored as honey bee colonies suffer management challenges and colony losses in recent years.
Mason bees have a short lifespan of 4 to 6 weeks. Emerging in the early spring, males die shortly after mating, while females build nests in holes in wood or reeds. They forage for pollen and nectar to form provision masses in which they lay their eggs. They also collect mud to form partitions between each provision mass and to cap the nest once it is full. Their offspring will feed on the provisions and metamorphose into cocooned adults to overwinter in their cells and emerge the following spring.
To ensure the bees had ample nutrient resources, the project was conducted next to the organic cherry orchard at OSU’s Lewis Brown Farm. Before the cherries bloomed, 6 nest structures were designed and constructed by Jim, Ron Spendal (a mason bee house conisuerrier) and Aaron Moore of Revolution Robotics.
Each structure has 3 shelves with 16 nest holes each, lined with paper straws so that the nests can be easily removed and examined. The structures are solar powered, and each shelf is heated to a different increment above the ambient temperature i.e. + 0°C , + 2°C, + 4°C, + 6°C, + 8°C, + 10 °C, and + 12°C. These differentials represent many potential warming outcomes of climate change.
- We predicted that female mason bees will select the warmer nests first, and that females will leave nests earlier in the morning to begin foraging because they will reach the critical internal temperature necessary for flight sooner.
- If heated bees have a greater window of foraging time, then we predict they’ll be able to construct nests at a faster rate in the warmer nests.
- With greater nest construction will come a greater production of offspring from the bees in the warmed nests.
- In terms of offspring quality, we predict that offspring of heated nests will emerge as weak individuals and mortality will be the highest for the heated brood.
…and we are pretty confident about this last prediction.
Insects are poikilothermic meaning their internal temperatures are determined by the environment. Past studies by researchers Bosch and Kemp have reported that mason bees who are overwintered at warm temperatures will “use up their metabolic reserves and are likely to die during the winter”. And a more recent study by researchers at the University of Arizona found that mason bees subjected to heating resulted in reduced body mass, fat content and high mortality of the mason bee offspring.
Our mason bees started hatching from cocoons in mid-April and began to colonize the nest structures. I captured video footage of the bees as they emerged in the morning to forage. If bees from heated nest sites emerge earlier, this will support our hypotheses that they reach their critical-for-flight temperature earlier, and get a leg-up on foraging compared to their neighbors.
I also conducted “nest checks” to track the rate of nest construction along with two other research assistants.
In the fall, the nest tubes will be extracted to examine the reproductive output, and in the following spring, offspring will be assessed for rates of mortality, offspring mass, and fat content.
Some of the challenges along the way have included dealing with insect pests. Spiders were easygoing inhabitants of the nest straws, for they only nested in empty straws, so we’d swap them out for a clean one. The earwigs were much more pervasive, and went for the already inhabited nests. As generalist foragers, the earwigs took advantage of provision balls of nectar and pollen that had not yet been sealed off by mud. Once I read that earwigs will indeed eat the mason bee eggs that are laid into the provision masses, I knew it was crucial to remove the earwigs from all nests, but these feisty creatures proved determined to stay. We ordered some tanglefoot, a sticky substance to trap the earwigs on their way up the structure post, and meanwhile I coaxed earwigs out with tiny pieces of grass. Jabbing them repeatedly would eventually provoke them to charge at the blade of grass and fall out from the straw.
Yellowjackets were another opportunistic nester. They’d sneak into the cocoon boxes to build nests, and always gave me a start when opening the tiny boxes. I removed their nests with an extended grabber tool and would destroy them in any way I could. I feel immensely lucky not to have been stung through this process.
The most terrifying surprise during the project was a fat snake that was living in the solar panel battery box. It popped out at me hissing while I conducted a routine check. Alas, I was too spooked to take on this unexpected visitor and let it leave on its own time.
Preliminary Findings & Observations
By mid-May, a pretty clear pattern was emerging. At each structure, the control shelf’s nests (+ 0 °C) were full and capped with mud, while the hottest shelves were almost completely empty. We will analyze nest check data to confirm that these patterns are not just arising by chance, but a study that was released this past April showed another species of mason bee in Poland following the same pattern of nest site preference and selection for cooler nest sites.
The mason bees’ unexpected behavior of avoiding the heated chambers may lead to trouble during the second part of the experiment because this means our sample size for heated offspring has become so tiny, but here it is important to note that this is mason bee project is a pilot study and so the data collected this year will simply influence more specific future research.
these preliminary findings make me think that mason bees have an ingrained sense to avoid warm nests, which might show mason bees’ adaptability in the face of climate change, that is, if they can manage to continue finding cool nests. People managing mason bees find that nests facing the morning sun are the most attractive to the bees, but I wonder how long it will be before temperatures rise and mason bees start avoiding these sunny nests.
By the end of May, I’d only see a few the mason bees per visit, so the season was clearly coming to an end. I wrapped up data collection and am now spending the summer extracting data from the video footage, and checking up on the bees to ensure they are safe and sound until Fall inspections.
I am wishing the best to both the wild bees in our region and those in our study, as the temperatures skyrocket this week but with this summer’s heat wave, I don’t think we need to simulate climate change; it is right here before us. Even though it is practically inevitable that temperatures will rise to dangerous heights in my generation’s lifetime, there is so much life to be saved, and there is no time to waste.