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East Farm, the Bees, and the Two Kates

Kate Zmich, left, and Kate Perzanowski, the two recipients of the 2023 Glass Bee Fellowship

The meadow hummed with industrious buzzing as we followed the students through the gate of the research field known as the 5-acre field at East Farm. Small orange stakes delineated a 10’ by 20’ plot abloom in purple flowers. The flower was Prunella vulgaris, common self-heal, a native, mowable alternative to grass that is a favorite pollen source for native bees.

 “If I can convince you of nothing else today, I want to convince you to plant self-heal,” said Julia Vieira, a graduate student in the entomology department at URI, and researcher in the Bee Lab, which is led by Dr. Steven Alm. Vieira is studying Bombus fervidus, one of 12 bumble bee species native to Rhode Island, which is in decline and listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List. She explained that a former graduate student, Liz Varkonyi, while conducting survey of bumble bees in Rhode Island, had discovered that B. fervidus were particularly attracted to red clover. But red clover is not native to Rhode Island, and she was looking for a native plant that the bees were as eager to feed from. The best way to help “Save the Bees,” she said, is to plant native plants and to increase nesting habitat. As she explained her research, Kate Perzanowski and Kate Zmich, undergraduate research assistants in the Bee Lab, caught and identified for us several species of native bumble bees. They positioned small plastic lidded vials upside down above a bee that was visiting one of the purple flowers. Bees naturally want to fly up, they said, so when they are done visiting the flower, they fly up and into the vial. They gently close the lid, careful not to injure the flower or the bee, and can then identify them. When they are finished, they open the lid of the vial and the bee flies away, unharmed, and continues about its business.

Zim finds a Bombus fervidus, which she identified and released.

 Kate Zmich, "Zim" in the Bee Lab, identifies and releases a Bombus fervidus.

Kate Perzanowski and Kate Zmich, or Kate and Zim as they are known in the Bee Lab, are the first recipients of The Glass Bee Fellowship, an annual fellowship made possible through the Coastal Fellows Program at URI and funded by us here at The Glass Station, that supports one or two undergraduate research assistants in the Bee Lab. Zim, a sophomore who’s from Tiverton, Rhode Island, became interested in bees by gardening and landscaping. She is majoring in Environmental Science and Management. In the future, she says, she might like to go to graduate school. Kate, a rising junior from Meriden, Connecticut, is a Biological Sciences major. She got into bees when she owned a hive in high school. She became intrigued, she said, by not only honeybees but also native bees and their conservation because of how important they are to all aspects of the environment. She is hoping to pursue entomological or ecological research as a career. 

A typical day for them in the bee lab involves taking bee surveys in both the morning and the afternoon. They record which bees they saw in the research plot and how many. They also record information on floral abundance, which gives them an idea of what flowers the bees prefer. They are also in charge of caring for the honey bee hives, performing lab work, and doing data entry. Their work helps Vieira and fellow graduate student Ren Johnson and Research Associate Casey Johnson in their research. Vieira and Casey Johnson were both Coastal Fellows themselves.

 Posters of past research projects line the walls of the Bee Lab. Under Dr. Alm’s leadership, graduate students in the Bee Lab have studied such topics as the most effective native bee pollinators of the high bush blueberry, bees that practice “nectar robbing,” and bee-friendly Japanese Beetle traps. In Varkonyi’s state-wide survey of native bees, she found that of the 12 species that are supposed to be present, only seven were found between 2019 and 2022. 

 There are many possible reasons for the decline of native bumble bee species in Rhode Island and across the country. Some possibilities include loss of habitat and floral resources, overuse of pesticides in agriculture and the home garden, and pathogens and diseases introduced by non-native bees. These are all topics being studied in the Bee Lab, but as Vieira said, research often leads you to more questions than you have answered. 

People are surprised to learn that there are approximately 250 native bee species in Rhode Island, 4,000 in North America, and 20,000 worldwide. The most important way for the general public to help save the bees is to plant native plants in our home landscapes. Native bees evolved in this area within a specific ecosystem that contains specific plants. While non-native plants can be appealing for their ornamental or edible values, they don’t always help support other native species. Rewilding disturbed areas, or replanting disturbed areas with native plants, helps to support the pollinator and other insect species that belong here. In turn, they help support other species higher up in the food chain like native songbirds. So if you are redesigning your yard or would just like to add more native plants to your existing landscape, here’s a list of plants to consider. Many local nurseries carry them! Let’s all do our part to save the bees and save the planet.


Graphic of suggested trees to plant to help bees.

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