The Ohio State University at Newark


The Decline of the Pollinator

February 12, 2019

What is black and yellow and weightless? A bee in space. No, this isn’t a joke. The bee, an alfalfa leaf cutter bee, was one collected by Professor Karen Goodell and sent to the international space station where it hatched from its cocoon this summer.

“One of the nice things about being a bee expert is I am often contacted to do interesting projects that help other people’s research,” Goodell said. “I wish I could say that I do research on the international space station, but all I can say is that one of my bees did get to take a trip up there and have a flight.”

Back here on Earth, Goodell is at the forefront of bee conservation research. Bees are an important contributor to the global food supply, yet many populations are declining. So much so that in 2017 the first bee species in the continental U.S., a bumble bee, was designated an endangered species by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: the Rusty Patched Bumble Bee.

Finding the Rusty Patched Bumble Bee in Ohio — and another rare species, the Yellow Banded Bumble Bee — is one of Goodell’s current missions. In 2017 she led a team of researchers from Ohio State and the University of Akron funded by the Ohio Department of Transportation to look at not only roadsides, but all areas of Ohio to document the bee species present in this state and their habitat requirements.

“In the United States there are about 3,500 bee species and in Ohio alone about 500,” explained Goodell. “Some people don’t realize that honey bees aren’t native to the United States. We think of them as a very important bee, which they are, but we have 500 native species that have been here much longer and have an evolutionary relationship with the plants here.”

Plants like the pumpkin, a fall staple that dominates our food, beverages and décor each autumn, depend on bees to produce fruits. Imagine Halloween without jack-o-lanterns or Thanksgiving without pumpkin pie. Without pollinators, our lives wouldn’t be as sweet or as fun. On pumpkin farms, Goodell’s research keep bees and pumpkins safe.

“The whole idea is to optimize our use of pesticides so that we’re using them to control the harmful insects that damage crops but do so in a way that leaves the beneficial insects,” Goodell described.

Goodell involves not only students but also the public in her research. She and her colleagues from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, University of Akron, as well as several Ohio park districts and other conservation organizations initiated a large citizen science project called “The Ohio Bee Atlas” that is administered through iNaturalist, an online database app. Anyone can sign up for an account, join the Ohio Bee Atlas project and post photos of bees that they see anywhere in the state. Even you can get involved.

And what about that space bee? Initial investigation is still underway, but it doesn’t look like bees will make an intergalactic invasion quite yet. While it appears that the bee can fly in zero gravity, determining how it can complete its entire life cycle in space is a challenge.

“I think it would be pretty hard,” said Goodell. If anyone would know, she would be the one.