Pollination & Pickles: A Look into the World of Bees with Jacquelyn Fitzgerald

Did you know… without pollinators such as bees, there would be no pickles?!

Jacquelyn Fitzgerald, originally from Winston Salem, NC, is now a PhD student at Northwestern University and the Chicago Botanic Garden in Chicago, IL. After completing her undergraduate degree at NC State, Fitzgerald decided to pursue her PhD in Plant Biology and Conservation.

Fitzgerald has always been excited by and interested in the natural world. During her undergrad, she worked in an insect ecology research lab and became particularly interested in the biology of bumblebees. There are 49 species of bumblebees in the United States, just a fraction of the 20,000 known species of bees worldwide. Honeybees are just one of those species. Honeybees are native to Europe, brought over to the United States to pollinate crops, like cucumbers, which is why they are so important to humans and should be protected. Without bumblebees, honeybees and other pollinators, we wouldn’t have any pickles!

Fitzgerald just completed her first year in her PhD program. She is focusing on bettering our understanding of fundamental ecological traits of bumblebees, particularly body size. Bees come in an enormous variety of body sizes, from tiny sweat bees to huge carpenter bees. Bee species of different sizes visit different plants, live in different areas, and are active at different times. Bumblebee species also come in a variety of sizes, and have size variation within species. Bumblebees are social, meaning they live in colonies, unlike most bee species, which are solitary and do not form colonies. Inside a bumblebee colony, there are queen, workers, and males. Each group is a different size, but there is also size variation within groups. Scientists don’t fully understand how these within species variations like size differences effect bees’ lives. However, there is some evidence that bees of larger size and species with less size variation are more vulnerable to environmental changes. This is why Fitzgerald has chosen to study how bumblebee size variation impacts their lives.

This summer, Fitzgerald is stationed in the Elk Mountains of Colorado at The Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory (RMBL). This research lab is located in the Crested Butte/Gunnison area of Colorado. It is an old mining town that has been converted into a research field station for scientists to gather and work. RMBL is a global hotbed of pollinator research, located in the wildflower capital of Colorado. Here, Fitzgerald is conducting her research within a long-term bumblebee monitoring project.

Fitzgerald is spending the summer measuring bumblebees. She will later link this size data to other data, such as where bumblebees live, what they eat, when they’re active, etc. This information could help scientists predict bumblebee responses to environmental changes, such as, a hypothetical example: if a bee is large and measures over a certain size, it may be harder for that bee to fly when it’s very hot outside. If the average temperature rises, and those larger bees cannot fly, how will this effect pollinator communities and the plants that depend on them?

Why is this research important?

Pollinators in general are extremely important for our food systems. Pollinators include bees, flies, butterflies, hummingbirds, ants, and even lizards. Pollination is beneficial both for the plants being pollinated, and for the insects or animals doing the pollination. For plants, pollination is vital for their reproduction. Over 90% of flowering plants rely on animal pollination. In exchange, pollinators receive pollen and nectar to consume and to bring back to nurture their offspring.

Bees are the most abundant and effective of all of the pollinators. This is important for food production. We wouldn’t have tomatoes or cucumbers or squash without bees. This is not only important for the vegetables we consume, but also for our meat and dairy as well. Legumes like alfalfa rely on bee pollination, and the cattle we eat consume alfalfa. Imagine your ideal hamburger. Maybe it has tomatoes, pickles, mustard, ketchup, and cheese, sandwiched between a sesame bun. In a world without bees, none of these toppings would exist. Neither would apple picking or pumpkin carving. The US Department of Agriculture estimates that pollinators provide $15 billion dollars of service to our nation’s crops. The research being done by Fitzgerald and many other scientists allows us to have a better basic understanding of bee biology, which helps us better protect the bees that pollinate our crops and wild plants.

There are about 4,000 species of bees native to North America, and many are at risk. The better we understand their traits (where they live, what they eat, when they’re active, etc.), the better we can make decisions about how to conserve them and what land is most important to protect. We must support the bees around our agricultural system. Wild bees come into the agricultural system, and they provide support that is irreplaceable. This research contributes to the foundational understanding of bees and influences conservation and restoration decision making.

Special thank you to Jacquelyn Fitzgerald for agreeing to share this important information with all of us! In addition to being an awesome scientist, Jackie is also a pickle lover! She loves bringing Mt. Olive Munchies portable pickles along with her in the field. It makes for a great on-the-go snack!

Fitzgerald’s research is supported by funding from the National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship and the RMBL Graduate Fellowship Hunter Endowment. You can learn more about her work at her website: www.jacquelynfitzgerald.com

Message from Jackie: In addition to pickles and bees, I am excited about connecting young scientists to research opportunities! If you or someone you know is interested in becoming involved in research like mine, feel free to contact me. See you at the New Year’s Pickle Drop!