UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A Penn State-led research team has received a nearly $950,000 U.S. Department of Agriculture grant to create the next generation of an online decision-support tool designed to help conserve pollinator populations across the United States.
USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture awarded the funding under its Food and Agriculture Cyberinformatics and Tools grant program, which supports projects aimed at enabling research and stakeholder communities to leverage data and technologies to improve management of U.S. food and agricultural systems and natural resources.
“Bees provide critical pollination services in urban, agricultural and natural landscapes,” said project director Christina Grozinger, Publius Vergilius Maro Professor of Entomology in Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences.
“But bee populations are threatened by shifting land-use patterns and climate change that disrupt nesting habitat, reduce flowering plants for forage and increase the risk of insecticide exposure,” she said. “With widespread reports of population declines in both wild and managed bee species, there is tremendous interest in developing effective strategies to manage landscapes to support bees and the ecosystem services they provide.”
Grozinger, who directs Penn State’s Center for Pollinator Research, noted that because bees forage across large distances yet live in centralized nests, they are affected by resources and risks at both broad and very fine landscape scales. This poses significant challenges in predicting how wild or managed bee populations will perform at a selected location.
To assist in this effort, Grozinger’s research group used previous funding from USDA and the Foundation for Food and Agricultural Research to develop Beescape, an online decision-support tool that integrates multiple national databases to provide indices of bee resources (forage and nesting habitat) and risks (insecticide toxic load) across the continental United States.
With the current grant, the team will significantly expand Beescape’s functionality to better guide beekeepers, growers, conservationists and policymakers in evaluating resources and risks at their locations.
To be called Beescape NexGen, the system will feature a tool to assess the economic value of pollination services for all crops dependent on insect pollination in a given area. It also will include a refined seasonal forage-quality index that integrates stakeholder perspectives and additional national data sets. In addition, the application will offer bee-support assessments at local and regional spatial scales and the ability to explore changes across multiple years.
To gather and incorporate stakeholder input, the researchers will hold workshops and create interactive, web-based visualization tools that will help users to evaluate the resources and risks to bees at local and landscape scales, with an eye toward guiding them to make more informed decisions about managing their bee populations and landscapes.
“This project will be based on and foster community-driven science, ensuring that our research is both immediately applicable and is laying the groundwork for years of future collaborations,” Grozinger said.
She added that the team’s transdisciplinary approach — which integrates diverse stakeholders and research expertise in entomology, landscape ecology, statistics, economic systems, decision-support tool development and human-centered data visualization — will push the envelope in leveraging data science to understand and manage bee health.
Researchers on the project team also include Anthony Robinson, associate professor of geography and director of Online Geospatial Education Programs, Penn State College of Earth and Mineral Sciences; Vikas Khanna, associate professor and Wellington C. Carl Faculty Fellow, University of Pittsburgh Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering; Eric Lonsdorf, program director and senior scientist, Natural Capital Project, University of Minnesota; and Sarah Goslee, ecologist, Pasture Systems and Watershed Management Research Unit, USDA Agricultural Research Service.
–Chuck Gill, Penn State University