Bee research aided by citizen scientists


UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A researcher in Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences is reaching out to Master Gardeners, teachers, students and other interested parties to participate in a citizen-science project that ultimately could benefit growers, crops, pollinators and the environment.

Margarita Lopez-Uribe, assistant professor of entomology, is working with collaborators at North Carolina State University on The Great Pumpkin Project, which is aimed at describing the geographic distribution of important crop plants and the insects and microbes with which they interact.

Data collected could help farmers one day to improve plant health and crop yields.

“By examining the complex associations among plants, herbivores, pollinators and pathogens, we hope to gain a better understanding of how crop domestication for food production is changing ecological interactions across the landscape,” she said.


The project is focusing on cucurbits such as pumpkin, squash, cucumber and melon, which explains its name, according to Lopez-Uribe.

The project is focusing on cucurbits such as pumpkin, squash, cucumber and melon, which explains its name, according to Lopez-Uribe.

“We are looking for citizens and students who are willing to grow plants as food, watch the progress from seed to maturity and observe the related ecological processes,” she said.

“We hope to raise awareness of the connections between humans, nature and food production while studying how organisms move and co-evolve in the environment.”

The project has several facets. For example, a major focus of one researcher at North Carolina State is recruiting citizen-scientists to collect data on the location, abundance and persistence of a pest beetle that transmits bacterial wilt of cucurbits.

The objective is to examine how relationships between plants, insects and microbes vary from place to place and what that means for plant health, crop productivity and resistance to pests.


Lopez-Uribe’s contributions to the project will center on her primary research interest: understanding how environmental change — such as shifts in land use and climate — and management practices influence changes in the population and health of wild and managed bee species.

“My ultimate goal is to develop informed strategies for conservation and restoration of bee populations and the ecosystem services they provide,” she said.

She noted that she’s interested in having citizen-scientists help map the distribution and abundance of bees and other beneficial insects in relation to where cucurbits are grown.

“For example, a lot of bees and herbivores have been moving with squash as it was domesticated across North America,” Lopez-Uribe said.

“Previous studies have shown that one species, the squash bee, is an invader from Mexico, where the plant is native, and there’s a strong indication of recent population expansion of that bee. But other bees visit these plants as well, so we want to collect samples, look at their evolutionary history and learn how bee communities vary across the United States.”

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