For Food Security Look to the Pollinators

Apr 24, 2020


Credit Micki Palmersheim

More people are planting gardens this spring to supplement their food supply during the Coronavirus pandemic. But what you plant makes all the difference for the long run, because so many food crops depend on pollinators to reproduce.

It’s never been really clear which plants and pollinators work best together. Now, biologists at Virginia Tech are launching a study to find out. 

Margaret Couvillon is a Pollinator Entomologist at Virginia Tech, who’s done several important studies on bees, but they’re not the only species that pollinate plants.   "Pollinators can be everything from a hummingbird to an ant,” she notes.


But which ones make the best match, with which plants, is still something of a mystery because each region has its own unique situation. There are lots of lists of potential pollinator gardens out there, but no peer reviewed studies in the U.S. that confirm what works best with whom.  "And I kind of feel like those nuances don't come through when you get these huge long lists that are put out of plants for pollinators. As I scientist, I need to be able to actually see the data to know a little bit more, you know, who's visiting, especially if we want to be able to customize it."

It's a cool beautiful day in Blacksburg where the pollinator plots are waiting for their close-up; one of the last days before social distancing when we could talk together on site about the project.

Micki Palmershiem is the graduate student doing her master’s thesis on these gardens. She says they’re “trying to create the perfect pollinator garden for the Virginia region.”  They’ll be looking closely at their garden plots. “We're hoping to recognize that some flowers are really good for honeybees. Other flowers might specifically be really good for native bees or other pollinators such as butterflies and wasps.”

And no pollinators will be harmed in this production.  Instead of collecting them from the plants and taking them back to the lab to identify, Palmershime and a team of grad students will take a different approach.  They’ll use their eyes and just watch to see which ones really take to which plants. Because what’s key to this entire 2-year study is that special magic – the partnership between pollinator and plant.  And it turns out that’s something of a theme for this whole project. 

Frank Mueller is President of Kaeser Company which makes air compressors in Fredericksburg.   The company was looking for an environmental project to support, in honor of that milestone, and they came upon Professor Couvillon’s research with bees.  “We celebrated our centennial last year and one of the many things that we did is we wanted to make the world a better place,” Mueller says.

So they offered to help support this pollinator research project. “And that fits in nicely with our products and our history because we make very energy efficient air compressors and equipment. We're trying to reduce the environmental impact through reduction of energy. And in order to help the environment, we saw the opportunity to help the bees through clean air.” 

Kaeser’s company logo is yellow and black, Bee colors if you will.  And just like the fact that without pollinators, there’s be a lot less food on this planet, Mueller points out.  “We would all be standing here naked with no cars if there was no compressed air. Because everything we're wearing, everything we're driving, everything you're holding is made with compressed air,” Mueller says.

 Probably not something most people have ever thought of.  And it’s much the same when it comes to the pollinators.  Most people don’t realize what a delicate dance it is to find the right plant to pollinate. 

“If you have one particular insect that pollinates one particular plant and the insect disappears, well then the plant is going to disappear.” From a conservationist’s perspective, Margaret Couvillon says, “we want to make sure that our world stays beautiful. But also, just from a practical point, pollinators represent food security for us."

Kaeser’s grant will fund graduate students doing the 2-year study.  Thirty plant species have been carefully selected and they’re going in the ground now in 2 identical plots on the Virginia Tech Campus.  The researchers plan to publish their data and create pamphlets that people in Virginia can use to plan and plant their pollinator gardens.

 ***Editor's Note: Radio IQ is a service of Virginia Tech.