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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

Breakthrough with Mason Bees Inspires ODU's Lisa Horth to Push Frontiers of Pollination Research

By Brendan O'Hallarn

Now that Lisa Horth has proved that introducing native bees to orchards produces larger, more symmetrical fruit, the Old Dominion University biologist's research is buzzing.

Using a research lab of nine strawberry fields in nearby Pungo, Horth showed that introducing native Mason (or blue orchard) bees on farms where farmers typically rent honey bees to pollinate their crops makes the berries grow bigger and more symmetrical. This is the first time this has been proved empirically in any non-woody crop. Perhaps not coincidentally, several other biologists have begun to use Mason bees in their research.

Horth, associate professor of biology in ODU's College of Sciences, said the finding opens the door to many more studies about insect pollinators. The stakes are high for all of them.

"We're talking about the safety and security of our food supply," Horth said.

Honeybee populations are threatened by Colony Collapse Disorder, an epidemic, thought to be related to pesticides and disease, that can wipe out colonies overnight. An average of 30 percent of honeybee colonies die every year nationwide. Last year it was 44 percent.

The idea to use Mason bees to help pollination was inspired by the fact that they are native to Virginia. Honeybees are in fact an invasive species. "We thought using the native insects would work, because pollination was successful long before European colonists brought honeybees to North America," Horth said.

In addition, she said, having other insects compete for pollen from flowers makes honeybees work harder, producing more robust pollination. Horth said harder-working honeybees were probably not the cause of bigger berries in the Pungo fields, but this year's tests will look for a synergistic effect between honey and Mason bees.

Also this year, Horth's research is being extended to other studies funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Given the epidemic of disease in honeybees, Horth is studying if these types of viral and bacterial disease are found in Mason bees or can spread to and from the insect species.

She is also leading tests of the effectiveness of native Mason bees in greenhouses. "Mason bees have never been used in greenhouses, and we found that they will pollinate strawberry plants in this environment, too," she said.

Her research will be back in Pungo this growing season, with another study funded by the Department of Agriculture. This one will test if changing the density of Mason bees affects the size and symmetry of strawberries.

Her lab also is at work on a new project assessing native bee diversity in restored wetlands. Horth and her team will set up wooden bee homes in wetlands to see if native bees will colonize them.

"Little is known about bees in wetlands, and little is known about bees in our region. We will be looking at species abundance and the distribution of native bees near to ODU," she said.

A few years ago, the ODU Conservation Biology Club (of which Horth is the adviser) planted the pollinator garden adjacent to the firehouse on 43rd Street. In the first season, she said a few pollinating species were found visiting the garden.

"This year we will assess pollinator diversity there to see if there are more species found in the garden relative to the nearby grassy plots, which this garden was, just a couple of years ago," Horth said.

In addition to all of this research, Horth is doing significant outreach, presenting ODU's work to beekeepers, the Ecology Society of America and the North American Pollinator Partnership.

The multi-pronged effort fits with Horth's personal ethos as a scientist.

"I started working with bees because I wanted to do research that could make a difference. We have a long way to go, but it's exciting."

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