University of Vermont

Gund Institute for Ecological Economics

UVM Scientists Fight Bee Declines

Green Mountain State a hive of research activity

bees wild bees pollination pollinators Vermont beekeepers apiary Taylor Ricketts Leif Richardson Alison Broday Samantha Alger Gund Institute
UVM student Alex Burnham studies bee viruses and serves as a hive inspector for the National Honey Bee Survey.

There is a growing buzz at the University of Vermont as scientists join the global effort to stop bee declines.

In the past year, UVM researchers have released groundbreaking studies – highlighting bees’ importance to food, health and the environment – which have attracted international headlines, from the New York Times to the BBC.

This week, UVM scholars will discuss their findings with state officials, beekeepers, and farmers at the Vermont Pollinators Symposium on March 17, organized by the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources at Burlington’s ECHO Center.

UVM event participants include: Taylor Ricketts, Leif Richardson, Charlie Nicholson (Gund Institute, Rubenstein School), Samantha Alger (Biology) and Vern Grubinger (UVM Extension).

To mark the event, UVM’s Gund Institute has released a short video of bee research on Vermont blueberry farms. The study will support wild bee habitats, increase crop yields, and advance farm management practices. 

Bees and other pollinators are crucial to the world’s food supply. More than two-thirds of the most important crops benefit from – or need – pollinators, from coffee and cacao, to many fruits and vegetables.

Potential causes for bee declines include habitat loss, climate change, pesticides, pollution and disease.

Further declines could mean higher agricultural production costs, increased consumer food prices, and an increased risk for malnutrition in some developing countries, researchers say.

UVM offers outreach programs to help farmers, gardeners, beekeepers and government to promote healthy bees.

Below are examples of key projects on bees and pollination:

Gund Institute/Rubenstein School 

  • A United Nations report released last month, with contributions from Taylor Ricketts, finds that bees and other species important for agricultural pollination are declining, posing potential risks to major world crops.
  • Climate change is dramatically shrinking bumblebee habitats in North America and Europe, a study co-authored by Leif Richardson finds. As temperatures rise, bumblebees are losing their southern ranges, yet unable to gain new territory in the north. This could threaten their survival, and lead to mismatches between crops and bees that could impact food production, prices, and biodiversity.
  • The first ever national map of U.S. wild bees, led by Insu Koh, suggests bee declines could threaten U.S. crop production. The study found likely bee declines in 23% of the lower 48 states, identifying 139 key agricultural counties – from California to the Midwest – facing potential pollination shortages. The study will help decision-makers to focus conservation efforts.
  • A study by Taylor Ricketts and global colleagues calculates wild bees’ economic value to the food system in the billions – roughly equal to honeybees at more than $3.1K per hectare of insect-pollinated land. The results provide a powerful economic rationale for conserving wild bees.
  • Pollinators contribute to human nutrition and health, argue Alicia Ellis and Taylor Ricketts in the world’s first study to test this connection. If pollinator declines continue, they estimate that up to half the populations in some developing-world communities face increased health risks from malnutrition.
  • Research in Vermont by Charlie Nicholson aims to assess the economic impact of wild bees on blueberry crops. Nicholson has found that some farms have 10 times greater bee abundance and diversity than others, likely due to management practices and surrounding habitats. This is important, because preliminary results show that farms with more pollinators produce greater crop yields.
  • Forthcoming research by Insu Koh investigates how wild bees can enhance pollination of almonds. Certain managed wild bees are effective almond pollinators, but farmers must install artificial nests to house the bees. As farmers face higher honeybee costs, Koh is exploring optimal investment strategies to help this important U.S. industry to increase pollination diversity and stability.
  • Leif Richardson, author of Bumblebees of North America, has found that plant chemicals naturally present in flower nectar and pollen can reduce bumblebee parasites, causing some bees to “self-medicate” by seeking out these chemicals.
  • Leif Richardson also assesses bee species and protections for government agencies. He is helping the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service assess the imperiled U.S. bee Bombus affinis, and his work in Canada led to federal protections for rare bees. He has testified to Vermont lawmakers on the negative impacts of neonicotinoid pesticides.

Dept. of Biology 

  • A study of Vermont blueberries led by Alison Brody suggests a novel combination of plants, pollinators and fungi could increase crop yields. Early results indicate that select fungi can make blueberry plants more attractive to bees by increasing flower size and nectar rewards. Co-investigators include Taylor Ricketts, Leif Richardson, Jeanne Harris and Ben Waterman.
  • Samantha Alger is researching Vermont bee viral diseases, the role of plants in virus transmission, and the effects of pesticides on bee health and behavior. She leads Vermont’s involvement in the U.S. National Honey Bee Survey, gathering baseline data on diseases and pathogens, and works closely with beekeepers, providing educational workshops on bee health and disease management practices. 
  • Undergraduate students are making scientific contributions to this global issue. Alex Burnham, a junior in the Graduate College's Accelerated Masters program, studies bee viruses and parasites with Samantha Alger and Alison Brody, and serves as hive inspector and sample collector for the National Honey Bee Survey. Taylor Ricketts’ lab also provides research and fieldwork opportunities to undergraduate students. 

UVM Extension

  • Agronomist Sidney Bosworth is leading the Forage Legume Bee Project, a collaboration with the Vermont Beekeepers Association. It seeks to increase clover varieties to provide nectar for pollinators. This effort explores the use of hay and pasture crops that are more “bee friendly,” that still provide quality forage food for dairy and other livestock. 
  • Working with Leonard Perry, Plant and Soil Science doctoral student Annie White is investigating ways to enhance flowering plant selection for pollinators, and to incorporate native pollinator conservation into sustainable landscapes and agricultural practices.