Making a mess for your bees

Hooray! Fall has finally arrived and 2020 is nearly over. This means cooler temperatures and shorter days. Here in Columbus, we lose over an hour of day length in September alone and while this change signals the return of pumpkin spice lattes and woolen socks, it’s also a notice to nature that winter is quickly approaching. Birds and monarch butterflies are making their way south, flowers drop their petals and go to seed, and the trees replace the green of summer with the brilliant palette of fall. (Read more about Ohio’s fall colors here!)

Whether you’re a seasoned gardener or it’s something you picked up during The Great Quarantine, you might be thinking about cleaning up your garden to prepare for winter. Traditionally, that means cutting back the dead vegetation and discarding litter, but if you are interested in insect conservation then consider this: leave it alone and save the clean-up for spring!

Insects have their own version of hibernation (called diapause) to avoid the colder months and they’ll need a safe space to hunker down. This is where your garden can play a key role as a sanctuary for insects. Native bees will hide out in the dead stems of your flowers and grasses, lady beetles in the leaf litter, and caterpillars in the rolled leaves and seed pods; some insects even lay their next generation of eggs on the surface of the soil. Regardless of their method, all of them rely on standing vegetation and fallen litter as a barrier from the freezing temperatures and dry winds. But if you’re more into birds, know that nearly two dozen species like the Northern Cardinal overwinter here in Columbus and they rely on this vital supply of “hibernating” insects to make it through the winter.

So, do the insects, birds, and yourself a favor and leave your garden to nature. Then kick back with your pumpkin spice latte and enjoy the fact that come spring, you will have more pollinators and beneficial insects than before!

For Further Reading:
Nature’s Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation That Starts in Your Yard and Bringing Nature Home by Doug Tallamy
Grow Native: Bringing Natural Beauty to Your Garden by Lynn M. Steiner

Catching Bees in the Hocking Hills

On September 12, 2020, Dr Jamie Strange and the members of the Strange Lab visited Deep Woods Farm for a bumble bee catching venture. Situated near Logan, OH, an hour’s drive southeast of Columbus, this small farm in the Hocking Hills is surrounded by thick wildflower fields, forested hills, creeks, and even small hilltop caves.

With its floral diversity, abundance of good nesting habitat, and distance from urban areas, this land is prime territory for bumble bees. Unlike honey bees, bumble bees build their nests on or under the ground, often in abandoned rodent burrows, thick grass tufts, under compost piles, in fallen trees or in other sheltered areas. A wooded landscape thick with grasses, forbs, and shrubs provides these resources in abundance. The landscape also boasts many native wildflower species attractive to bumble bees, such as goldenrod and yellow crownbeard.

We caught dozens of bumble bees for our research training, although we only encountered one species (Bombus impatiens, the common eastern bumble bee), likely because they are active later into the year than most other species. In the process we also witnessed the massive diversity of other insects in the area, including many solitary bee species, which are also important pollinators.

Though the Midwestern states have seen much destruction of native habitats for the sake of agriculture, expanses of untamed, unmanicured, species-rich land can still be found, if one looks in the right places.

Liam Whiteman and Dr. Jamie Strange, netting bees on a wildflower-covered slope.


A common eastern bumble bee (Bombus impatiens) foraging on yellow crownbeard.

Queen Quest 2020

Bumble bees are both interesting creatures and yet really similar to many other insects that have evolved to live in the temperate and cold climates of the world.  One of the main problems they face is how to survive the winter.  Some insects like Monarch butterflies avoid winter altogether by migrating to Mexico each year, while other insects will find a warm spot in your house to survive, but like many insects, bumble bees spend their winter in the soil. They dig just deep enough to keep from freezing solid, spending the winter under protective layers of soil and snow. They can stay there for 8-9 months until the weather warms enough for them to dig out and begin feeding on pollen and nectar in the spring.

For bumble bees, only the queen bumble bee survives the winter and she does this alone, but we know very little about how a bumble bee chooses a site to spend the winter. To answer this question a bunch of scientists from across North America got together and started Queen Quest.  You can see the details here.

The Strange Lab has put together a Queen Quest team with six primary people.  I have been going out to Chadwick Arboretum weekly to look for fall flying queens with two undergraduates, Lizzy Sakulich and Dalen Moore, two graduate students, Liam Whiteman and Iliana Moore, and the lab post doc Dr. Kayla Perry.  We even have some of the arboretum staff keeping an eye out for queens searching for wintering sites so we can add that data to the Queen Quest database.

We hope to find some queens this fall and help answer some questions about the basic biology of bumble bees that has remained a mystery for many years. Want to help out?  Drop me a line.


Welcome Grad Students

The Strange Lab welcomes Iliana Moore and Liam Whiteman for Autumn 2020.  Iliana and Liam join the lab in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and have recently gotten to Columbus ready to start graduate school.  They will be working on issues related to bumble bee health and conservation, studying how landscape factors impact bumble bee health.  Recently, they got out to Waterman Farm on The Ohio State University Campus and were able to survey bumble bees foraging on a restored prairie patch.  Welcome to Columbus Iliana and Liam.

Common Eastern Bumble Bee (Bombus impatiens) on Partridge Pea (Chamaechrista fasciculata) at Waterman Farm, The Ohio State University

Welcome to the Strange Lab

Dr. Jamie Strange has studied bee health and genetics for over 20 years.  The research focus of the lab is to understand how pests, parasites, and pathogens impact bee populations and how population genetic tools can be applied to study changes to bee populations. Current projects include understanding the effects of landscape on bumble bee pathogen and parasite community, the impacts of urbanization on population diversity, and conservation of the Rusty-Patched Bumble Bee, a federally protected species.