Va. Tech researchers looking at value of native pollinators

AFP Correspondent

PAINTER, Va. (May 10, 2016) — Virginia Tech researchers and a group of farmers on the Eastern Shore of Virginia and Maryland are trying to find out more about native pollinators and how helping them can make life better for farmers and visitors to the area.
Dr. Megan O’Rourke, leader of the team of scientists and collaborators working on the USDA funded project, talked about the project sitting in her office on the fourth floor of Saunders Hall on the university campus in Blacksburg, Va., far from where the project is being conducted.
O’Rourke whose doctorate from Cornell University is in ecology and evolutionary biology said 20 farmers are participating in the study which is an interdisciplinary effort that is called an agro-ecosystem management research project. She also holds a Master’s degree in entomology and agronomy from Iowa State.
Ten of the farms have been planted with pollinator habitat while the other ten will serve as controls for comparison. The farmers are vegetable growers.
O’Rourke is working with the plants and pollinators while other team members are studying other aspects of the investigation. Dr. Sara Karpanty from the university’s Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation is looking at vertebrates such as birds and bats. Dr. Michael Sorice in the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation, will be working on the social and economic side of the project, she explained.
Sorice will be asking tourists to the Eastern Shore how much they would value farms that have been beautified by pollinator habitats there.
The USDA grant funding the project will continue until May 2019, O’Rourke reported. She said the first year was used in recruiting farmers and other participants and getting the project ready to go.
The actual research will be on-going for the next three years
“We hope to continue beyond the end of this project by finding additional resources to get pollinator habitats more widely adopted,” she said.
In March nine species of flowers were planted on nine farms with the final planting being done in April on the tenth farm. O’Rourke said the plants were chosen to provide food for the native pollinators throughout the season. This was done by planting three that flower in early spring, three that bloom in mid-season and three that bloom late in the season. She said two species of summer bunching grasses were also included.
The research project is looking at native bee species rather than commercial honey bees and other native insect, bird and bat pollinators and how the flowers provide resources for them, she said.
This team is not alone in these research efforts. She said collaborators include USDA-Natural Resource Conservation Service, Extension and the Virginia Tech Agriculture and Research Center at Painter, Va.
She said a retired NRCS employee with 40 years of service, Bob Glennon, who now does consulting work, has been especially helpful working with the team on the project.
Groups of students will be involved with the project. These include some grad students in Horticulture, Entomology, Agricultural Economics, and Fish and Wildlife conservation. A post doctorate scientist, Gina Angelella, is currently overseeing the on-site work.
O’Rourke said that the farmers can make decisions about what is done on their farms. She said the team will also investigate land-use in a one kilometer buffer around each farm. This will enable them to look at how off-farm activities and environments affect the pollinators. These may be such things as other farms, adjoining forests, residential areas or towns.