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By Mark Buckner, edited by Erin Rodger
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  • Department of Entomology
  • Agriculture
  • Animals
  • Entomology
  • Biology
  • Plants

Mark Buckner is a Ph.D. student working closely with Bryan Danforth, professor of entomology, to grow the public’s understanding of pollinators beyond managed honeybees — most notably on the lesser-known mason bees. This month, Danforth and Buckner launched Mason Bee Edu, a program focused on increasing awareness among high school students about solitary bee biology, conservation and their role as specialty crop pollinators.

Hosted online by Crown Bees, a major supplier of nesting materials and solitary bees for crop pollination, the program has the potential to reach 1.1 million high school students in more than 1,700 public schools in across New York state. Together, Danforth and Buckner hope the curriculum will encourage high school students to invest in the long-term conservation of bee populations throughout New York state through future careers or as informed citizens.

We recently asked Buckner to explain how the program works and why it’s so important to share CALS expertise on solitary and native pollinators with high school audiences.

Bring biology alive with Mason Bee Edu
Explore this instructional resource for high school science educators who want to enrich their curriculum and foster a greater understanding of pollinator biology, the importance and role of solitary bees in food production and ecosystem services, and the need for conservation of solitary, wild bees.

What discovery from the Danforth lab helped bring the Mason Bee Edu program to life?

The concept for this project has floated around for many years. Danforth first encountered mason bees in 2007, when he observed them nesting in the gaps in the masonry of his home in Ithaca, New York. After this discovery, he became fascinated with the biology of stem nesting bees and the ease of working with them.

In the wild, mason bees nest in hollow stems and old beetle bore holes in trees. However, they will readily nest in artificial structures made by humans or what we refer to as ‘bee hotels.' We can take advantage of this behavior and raise a local population with minimal cost and effort, making mason bees easy subjects for observation in an educational setting. It is intriguing to watch these hard-working bees construct their nests by building mud walls and collecting pollen. And their willingness to nest in hollow reeds, stems or even paper straws also makes it easy to open nests and observe the bees at each life stage.

Danforth soon realized that mason bees are a perfect organism for connecting K-12 students with bee biology. He piloted an early version of this program at Cayuga Heights Elementary School in 2015 and it proved to be a sweeping success. Last year everything finally fell into place to develop a more formal program. In order to extend the reach and impact of the program, we created a free digital resource that educators could integrate into existing biology curricula.
 

Why do you think integrating CALS bee expertise into high school biology curriculum is important?

While most people are familiar with common social bees, like honeybees and bumblebees, people are less familiar with the biology of other, mostly solitary, bees. Bees are a remarkably diverse group — there are over 20,000 species worldwide, 4,000 species in the United States, and over 400 in New York state. The vast majority of these bees are quite different from honeybees and bumblebees as they don’t make honey and don’t live in hives. The majority of bees have a solitary lifestyle — each female builds her own nest, gathers food for her offspring and lays her own eggs. Through Mason Bee Edu, we hope to educate high school teachers and their students about the diversity of bees, their life history and ecology and the important role they play in pollination. Mason bees are ideal for introducing students to bee biology because they are not aggressive and can be easily reared in urban and suburban habitats.

What do you ultimately hope to accomplish through the curriculum?

We crafted Mason Bee Edu to encourage future agricultural workers, pollinator biologists and informed citizens to help build a bee-friendly future through providing an accessible and inclusive introduction to bee biology, addressing common misconceptions and fostering science literacy and critical thinking skills. 

There is a reason to be concerned about bees and we want to instill that concern early on in high school students. Bees are our most important agricultural pollinators and provide essential pollination services in wild ecosystems. In New York state, some of our most valuable specialty crops including apples, cherries, plums, peaches, pears, strawberries, blueberries, squash, pumpkin and tomatoes  are dependent on healthy bee populations for pollination. 

Still, pollinators face a growing number of threats ranging from invasive species to pesticide use to habitat loss from climate change. Unfortunately, while we have made some headway in addressing threats to honeybees, native species — particularly solitary bees — have not received comparable attention. We hope this program will serve as a resource for introducing students to solitary and native bees and increase public awareness of these indispensable pollinators.

What kinds of feedback have you received about your pilot efforts with high schools?

We developed this Mason Bee Edu with the guidance of an exceptional group of educators from the New York State Master Teacher Program and the Museum of the Earth, in partnership with Crown Bees, based in Washington state.

Our advisors provided an invaluable resource for creating a program that meets the needs and wants of high school science teachers. In particular, they were excited by the inclusion of recent real-world data. Educators strive to connect students with current research, but they face time constraints and inadequate research accessibility. Mason Bee Edu provides an excellent opportunity for researchers like Danforth and me to help connect students with the intriguing research we interact with daily. 

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