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Virginia Tech News / Articles / 2018 / March 

Portion of $7 million grant will help Virginia Tech researcher combat pollinator population declines

March 16, 2018

Margaret Couvillon is working to decode, analyze, and map the dances of honey bees in order to determine where bees are foraging.

Margaret Couvillon is working to decode, analyze, and map the dances of honey bees in order to determine where bees are foraging.
Margaret Couvillon is working to decode, analyze, and map the dances of honey bees in order to determine where bees are foraging.

Virginia Tech researcher Margaret Couvillon has dedicated years to the study of dance choreography. Her subjects, honey bees, use waggle dances to communicate routes to nectar and pollen to their fellow hive members.

Couvillon’s job is to decode, analyze, and map the dances in order to determine where bees are foraging. Her goal is for this research to lead to best management strategies for improving food availability and enhancing pollinator health in a targeted manner.  

The Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research, a nonprofit established through bipartisan congressional support in the 2014 Farm Bill, announced 16 grants totaling $7 million for research to address declining pollinator health, an ongoing threat to agricultural productivity in the U.S. The foundation awards are matched by more than 50 companies, universities, organizations, and individuals for a total investment of $14.3 million toward research and technology development.

Couvillon, an assistant professor in the Department of Entomology within the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, is examining pollinator behavior in different landscapes to determine where and when planting supplemental forage could have the most positive effect on pollinator nutrition. One of 16 grant recipients, Couvillon will receive a $614,067 award from the foundation. Her grant brings together Virginia Tech co-investigators Roger Schürch, research assistant professor; Sally Taylor, assistant professor and Extension specialist; Megan O’Rourke, assistant professor, Department of Horticulture; and, collaborator James Wilson, Extension apiculturist.

Insect pollinators support crop yields and agricultural ecosystems and contribute an estimated $24 billion to the U.S. economy annually. New technology, knowledge, and best-practice guidance tailored to specific regions and land uses have the potential to accelerate efforts to improve pollinator health across the U.S.

“The recent pollinator crisis is an excellent example of how public interest in scientific issues can be a mixed blessing, simultaneously raising awareness while also generating rallying cries for untested solutions. Lack of food is a factor contributing to bee declines, and everyone at the moment wants to feed hungry bees,” said Couvillon. “Such help is offered with good intentions, but efficacy is undermined by knowledge gaps. This research explores how the honey bee waggle dance, a naturally occurring behavior in which a successful honey bee forager communicates to her nest mates the vector from the hive to an important resource — usually food — may also be a powerful tool for ecology, giving us information about when and where food can and cannot be found in the landscape.”

Researchers funded through the Pollinator Health Fund are working to address social and economic challenges faced by beekeepers, farmers, homeowners, and other land managers across the U.S.

“Declines in native and managed insect pollinator populations threaten both the agricultural systems that sustain us and the ecosystems that surround us,” said Sally Rockey, executive director of the foundation. “The Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research is pleased to support these 16 research teams who will bring new scientific rigor, best practices, and technology to current efforts toward improving pollinator health in the U.S.”

Learn more about grants awarded through the foundation’s Pollinator Health Fund website.

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