Research focuses on pollinator biodiversity, conservation of habitat

Pollinators are an essential part of life on the Texas High Plains, playing a critical in both the ecosystem and the human diet.

"One in three bites of food we eat is directly attributed to pollinators," said Scott Longing, an assistant professor of entomology in Texas Tech’s Department of Plant and Soil Science.

Most of our fruits, nuts and vegetables require insect pollinators, he said. Almonds 100 percent require honeybees to pollinate their flowers to produce almonds. Blueberries, cranberries, cantaloupe, all the cucurbits, squash, pumpkins—they all require insect pollinators.

Longing’s research focuses on biodiversity of pollinators and how to best conserve their habitats on the Texas High Plains.

Longing and his team are researching the species of pollinators in the Texas High Plains, their habitats, and the resources they need to survive. Because bees are one of the most important pollinators, their research has focused on this group, and information has doubled regarding what is known of the biodiversity of bees in the region.

The southwestern United States has a high biodiversity of pollinators, including bees, butterflies, beetles and flies. They are labeled as pollinators because they all transfer pollen in one way or another. Though there is an abundance of pollinators, many types are dependent on certain plants to survive, and vice versa.

"We have a lot of very special plants that attract very special bees," said Longing, "and in some cases they fit together, and they can’t be separated. So the plant needs the pollinator, and the pollinator needs the plant."

Longing said his lab primarily focuses on pollinator ecology, biodiversity and conservation. He has several graduate students working on various research projects related to these topics. These projects include squash bees in pumpkin production, urban bee ecology, and even the effects of pesticide exposure on bees.

Regarding the conservation of these essential pollinators, Longing said there are steps that can be taken to preserve the populations, including increasing floral and nesting resources.

Milkweed and flowering plants can be grown to help conserve the monarch butterflies that travel through the Texas High Plains while migrating, said Longing. Most wild bees nest in the ground, so identifying and preserving these nesting areas is important as well. They are also working to build artificial nests in orchards for bees that pollinate in those areas.

Another important discovery they have made, Longing said, concerns the pollination of pumpkins. Many pumpkin farmers bring in honey bees to supplement the pollination of their fields. However, researchers have discovered it is likely wild squash bees provide all the pollination needed to produce the pumpkins.

Longing said pollinators do not have an impact on a large volume of agricultural products, because they aren’t necessary to the production of this area’s major staple crops such as cotton and cereal grains. However, they still have a huge impact on the ecosystem and the human diet, as they are essential to the production of most of the specialty crops that we eat.

"In the non-human world, pollinators help to maintain flowering plant communities," said Longing. "So, they help produce seeds that birds eat, higher predators eat the birds, and so on. They’re a critical link in the natural food web of communities.

"Without pollinators, we wouldn’t have about any fruit nut or vegetable that you can think of," he said. "They all benefit from insect pollinators. Really our diet, the human diet is dependent on insect pollinators."