Sex has always been rather troublesome for plants. Pursuing a mate is hard when you have roots and no brain. When the first bees came to be, perhaps 125 million years ago, they took flight as botanical matchmakers—and remade the world.
In one of the greatest love stories on this planet, the co-evolution of bees and flowers may explain what Charles Darwin called “an abominable mystery”—the explosion of diversity in flowering plants during the Age of Dinosaurs. What had been a world dominated by the earth tones of stout cycads, tree ferns, and sober pines—suddenly discovered hot pink and perfume. Instead of just tossing themselves upon the wind, plants found a much more reliable means of having sex: bees and other insects carrying pollen. So they began to compete fiercely for the attentions of these creatures, advertising with ever-more alluring and elaborate flowers. Plants invented sweet nectar to reward bees and longer tubes to let in only favored species; bees developed longer tongues to extract the nectar, and specialized hairs and baskets on their legs to carry wads of pollen home to their young.
Today, the plant kingdom is dominated by flowering plants—and the pollinator world by bees. There are some twenty thousand species of bees globally, four thousand in the United States. In the tiny state of Vermont, there are more than three hundred species of wild bees—miners and masons, carpenters and bumblebees, sweat bees and cuckoos—some in complex social groups, many solitary, living in hollowed out sticks and holes in the ground. And, yes, apis mellifera, the domestic honeybee, has played a central role in remaking the world too, providing not just honey but pollination to many gardens and crops.
Now this dual bee story is faltering: the deep-time story of wild bees, and the nine-thousand-year-old story of domestic bees that probably began in pottery jars in northern Africa. Many species are declining, battered by habitat loss, climate change, hypertoxic neonicotinoid pesticides, sterile lawns, and exotic diseases. Numerous people across the University of Vermont are working to understand bees and how to protect them. Here are a few snapshots of the many UVM researchers, teachers, and students who love this ancient love story, who want to keep bees.
BUZZING ON BLUEBERRIES
After collecting blueberries at test plots at UVM’s Aiken Laboratory, on Spear Street, and Waterman Orchards in Johnson, Vermont, Joanna Santoro ’21, cuts them open, puts them under a microscope in professor Alison Brody’s on-campus lab—and starts to study the seeds in each plump fruit. She’s looking for a sign that bees have visited. “You see those bigger seeds? They’ve been fertilized,” she explains.
All summer, as part of her thesis research in the Honors College, Santoro watched bees on high-bush blueberry plants—one of Vermont’s most important specialty crops. She counted how many flowers they visited, and how long the bees spent at each flower. “Most of them were bumblebees,” she says.
That bees buzz may not come as news. But for blueberry plants—and their owners—buzzing means business. These plants, native to North America, evolved to be pollinated by bumblebees and a few other solitary bees. The bell-shaped blueberry flower holds its pollen firmly inside anthers that open into a pair of pores, like a salt shaker. To get this nutritious meal takes a buff bee that can vibrate its thoracic flight muscles at the right frequency to shake it out. Brody and her students are deeply interested in this “buzz pollination,”—but only as one link in the larger question of how blueberry plants make a living.
“Often we just think about two-species interactions, a plant and pollinator, a bush and a bee,” says Brody, “but plants have many interactions, beginning from the soil up.” Blueberries don’t just depend on wild bees—they also depend on mycorrhizal fungi in the ground for scarce nutrients that affect their capacity to offer rewards to bees—like nectar and pollen. Brody wants to know how inoculating blueberry plants with these fungi might shape their fate.
“Buzz pollination is cool, but ecosystems don’t function with a single super-cool example. That’s not an ecosystem. That’s not a community,” says Brody. “I’m interested in understanding the many links that lead to what evolutionary biologists would call ‘plant fitness’ and what a farmer calls ‘yield’—lots of berries.”
Professor Taylor Ricketts, director of UVM’s Gund Institute for Environment, swipes a white bug net over a field full of goldenrod, Joe Pye weed, and Jerusalem artichoke on the edge of a community garden in Burlington. Above the flowers, gigantic, improbable bumblebees, like the 747s of the insect world, dive headlong into yellow pools of pollen. And above Ricketts, a row of solar panels turn toward the sun.
Fossils suggest that until about 135 million years ago, almost all plants paired on the wind. Male pollen, carried by air currents and faint hope, might happen to fall on a female ovule. Almost none did. But a few beetles and other insects discovered that this wasted pollen was nutritious and, when flying about to look for food, would accidentally carry grains of it from one plant to the next—becoming the first, clumsy, pollinators.
Meanwhile, wasps were making a decent living as carnivores. No one knows exactly how, but some ancient wasps may have fallen into flowers, gotten dusted with pollen and carried it back to their nests. This protein-rich pollen became part of what wasps fed their young, perhaps to tide them over when, say, flies were in short supply. Over generations, this lineage of wasps evolved to gather more and more pollen as food. When they had gone 100 percent vegetarian, they weren’t wasps anymore. They were bees.
“Now about ninety percent of flowering plants need bees and other pollinators to reproduce,” Ricketts says. “So the world is green because of pollinators. And about seventy percent of crops benefit from pollination—so our food system is intimately tied to pollinators too.”
Sure, butterflies, hummingbirds, ants, flies, and bats do some pollination work. But perhaps eighty percent of animal-pollinated plants rely on bees. “Bees are the professional pollinators of the insect world. Everything else that pollinates does it as a side hustle,” says Jason Mazurowski, a 2019 graduate of UVM’s Field Naturalist program, who teaches a course on native pollinators. He’s been working with Ricketts on an effort to understand the potential for growing bee-friendly plants under the solar fields popping up across Vermont. “The Department of Energy estimates that by 2030 we’re going to have three million acres of solar fields in this country,” Mazurowski says, setting out a fluorescent-blue cup to catch and count tiny bees under the towering solar panel. “That’s a lot of old farmland that might support pollinators.”
It’s one of many bee projects housed at UVM’s Gund Institute, a globally recognized center of research on bee conservation—from Burlington’s Intervale floodplain to coffee plantations in Costa Rica. A team of UVM scientists at the Gund made international headlines demonstrating an alarming decline in native bees across the United States.
“Many native bees pollinate crops more efficiently than honeybees do,” says Ricketts—providing most of the pollination on Vermont farms, including for tomatoes, squash, and apples. “And domestic bees certainly don’t pollinate many native wildflowers and plants—that ninety percent,” Ricketts says. Which is why he and other Gund researchers are focused on maintaining habitats for native bees within landscapes that people occupy. “Let’s share,” Ricketts says. “Ecosystems and our economy benefit when we keep wild bees living where we live—in and around our agriculture.”
With a clipboard and a quiet back-and-forth sweep of the head, Jessica Cole walks through a meadow at UVM’s Horticulture Research and Education Center. She’s waist-high in a late-summer riot of wildflowers, with rows of ripening grapes and apples as a backdrop—so it’s hard to believe we’re only a few hundred yards from subdivisions and car dealerships along Shelburne Road. Cole’s first pass through this research plot was for counting flowers; “nine species,” she says, including two clovers, a member of the rose family, and an oxalis, “that yellow one there, which tiny sweat bees love.”
Now on her second pass, she’s counting the bees. She’s tallied honeybees, a common bumblebee species, several kinds of sweat bees in the genus Lasioglossum, and a bee in the genus Agepostemon, “a metallic green sweat bee,” Cole says.
Cole—a graduate of the University of Mississippi, third-year doctoral student in biology, and member of UVM’s QuEST training program in environmental problem-solving—wants to know how pesticides may be affecting these bees. A raft of global research shows that bees in agricultural areas suffer profound harm from several classes of pesticides. But what about in non-farming areas? “That’s an additional exposure that hasn’t been much considered,” Cole says—though it’s known that some of these toxic chemicals can blow and flow for miles. Cole’s research found pesticide residues in soils, flowers, and bees in sites across Chittenden County. “Plants will translocate these pesticides—absorb them from the ground—and put them into their pollen or nectar,” she says, “which could be bad for bees visiting flowers.” Now Cole is exploring how flowers may express different levels of pesticides—pondering what it might mean if bees are getting poisoned by roadside weeds and backyard gardens.
VERMONT BEE LAB
On the second floor of Jeffords Hall, in the new Vermont Bee Lab, research assistant professor Samantha Alger G’18 looks over data sheets from UVM student outings to nearby apiaries—they’ve been working for her on the National Honeybee Survey. On the other side of the room, business major and lab technician Lily Burnham ’21 measures out half a cup of dead honeybees in ethanol. “That’s approximately three hundred bees,” Burnham says. Soon she’s shaking the bees in a sifting jar over a plastic tub—looking for tiny red mites that fall against the white plastic.
“Eleven,” Burnham says. “That’s a lot of mites,” Alger replies.
Some of the students in Alger’s introduction to beekeeping class call her the bee whisperer. But she might be better described as a bee advocate—for all bees, wild and domestic. “The Bee Lab got started because, as a graduate student, I was working on RNA virus spillover—and the big takeaway of that was to show that viruses are moving from honeybees into wild bee populations,” Alger says. “Well, how do we stop that? There’s no cure for the viruses, but maybe if we improve the health of honeybees we could reduce the chance of spillover into wild bees.”
The biggest threat to honeybee health is a parasitic mite, Varroa destructor, introduced into the United States in 1987. Poorly managed, the mites overwhelm and kill honeybee hives—and are a vector for viruses, including deformed wing virus and black queen cell virus, that harm honeybees and, Alger’s research shows, jump into bumblebee populations via shared flowers.
Now, commercial and hobbyist beekeepers in Vermont can drop off samples of bees from their hives for free examination at the bee lab; scientists there will help the beekeepers understand their mite load and look for another disease called Nosema. The lab also has plans to help beekeepers improve queen bee genetics and test for another major honeybee threat: American and European foulbrood.
Alger has long loved honeybees and has worked alongside commercial beekeepers in South Carolina, Hawaii, and the Northeast. After she finished her PhD at UVM she spent the fall working in the bee yards of renowned Vermont beekeeper Chas Mraz of Champlain Valley Apiary—but she’s clear about what they are. “They’re non-native. They’re livestock animals,” Alger says. “A huge misconception in the public is that honeybees serve as the iconic image for pollinator conservation. That’s ridiculous. It’s like making chickens the iconic image of bird conservation.”
In a non-denominational patch between the UVM Catholic Center and University Heights dormitory, a field of Queen Anne’s lace, goldenrod, and purple New England asters grows where there used to be close-cropped lawn. In the middle of the field stands a rectangle of chainlink fence and inside the fence stand four towering beehives. This is the home of the UVM Beekeepers, a burgeoning club started in 2016, now with more than a thousand students on their listserv. One of the newest is freshman Alissa Frame ’24. This is her first visit to the beeyard, but she’s entirely calm behind her veil, peering into an open deep-box, thrumming with thousands of bees. “I want to get to know bees better,” she says, “and get some hands-on experience.”
She draws out a frame of comb and holds it aloft under a hot fall sun. A few drips of honey and a large dollop of bees dangle from the bottom edge. She hands the frame to Eric Coughlin ’22, the club’s president, who eases it into a new box. They’re rearranging frames of comb to redistribute honey reserves that the bees will need to survive a long Vermont winter. “There’s a lot of honey here,” says club member Allie Film ’22. “Look, here’s some capped brood,” says Coughlin, showing Frame, “and you see that white speck? That’s a larva.”
Both this new meadow and new apiary exist, in large part, because of the efforts of professor Mark Starrett in the Plant and Soil Science Department. He’s the advisor to the beekeepers club—and has been, like a busy tenured bee, building and tending new pollinator gardens all over campus. “They’re full of native plants that provide nectar and pollen to honeybees, wild bees, butterflies—lots of pollinators,” he says, standing near some of his handiwork outside the Aiken Building, where a wedge of zinnias, coneflowers, sunflowers, pink buckwheat, black-eyed Susans, milkweed, and meadow blazing star light up the landscape.
Starrett’s work helped lead the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation to designate UVM as a “Bee Campus USA,” the only land-grant university in New England to receive the recognition. Working closely with professor Stephanie Hurley in his department, as well as colleagues in the Environmental Program, campus planning, grounds crews, and many others—Starrett aims to “have our community look around with a pollinator-friendly eye,” he says. “It’s a lot easier to just grow turf, but try to see the world the way a bee sees it.”