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Using environmental DNA to understand the decline in bees

USGSBIML Team, Public Domain
United States Geological Survey

A new method of extracting DNA from the environment is helping scientists better understand how bees are distributed across the western USA.

New approaches for understanding the decline in bee populations across the western US are being developed. Environmental DNA, commonly referred to as e-DNA, is DNA that is left behind by organisms in their environment, usually when the organism sheds cells onto surfaces.

“I've just always been fascinated with applications of environmental DNA, the idea is essentially, that organisms are shedding DNA into their environment, either directly from skin, or mucous membranes, or could be like scales of a butterfly. Or you could think of potentially hairs off of a bumblebee and, and it's that the idea that there is DNA being released in the environment” Explains Dr. David Pilliod, a research ecologist for the US Geological Survey.

Pilliod was approached by the US Fish and Wildlife Service about applying eDNA methods to study the status of bumble bee species of concern. He currently works on a team of scientists developing methods to use eDNA left by bees on flowers during foraging activities, to identify where certain species are found. The western bumblebee, which is native to Utah and was once abundant across the west, now is experiencing declines in its populations and range. Pilliod and his team are designing an eDNA method to detect where the bee can still be found.

“It seems like such a basic concept, the distribution and abundance of organisms, but we as biologists have such a hard time getting out those numbers, and yet they're so important for making decisions about whether populations are increasing or decreasing or whether they're, potentially so rare that maybe they need some protective status like would be provided under the the Endangered Species Act.

The eDNA study of the western bumble bee is ongoing and will contribute to the information used to decide if the species should be included on the Endangered Species List. That decision will be made in 2023 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

For more information about eDNA and this project, here.

Colleen Meidt is a science reporter at UPR as well as a PhD student at Utah State University. She studies native bees in the Mojave Desert and is particularly interested studying the conservation status of the Mojave Poppy Bee. In her free time, Colleen enjoys photography and rock climbing in the canyons.