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Building a prairie & watching for bees with ESA Fellow Alex Harmon-Threatt

Join us in celebrating Entomology's Alexandra Harmon-Threatt, elected as a 2020 Early Career Fellow by the Ecological Society of America (ESA) for her critically important research in the ecology and conservation of native bee species: training the next generation of ecologists, providing public outreach, and enhancing diversity in science. Read more about her research:

It’s early evening as I follow the researchers to their work site on the Phillips Tract, just east of Urbana. When we get there...

I immediately notice two things: We are standing in a vast grid of prairie plots with neatly mowed paths between them, and there are tents – dozens of dollhouse-sized tents.

The vegetation is only about thigh-high – the researchers planted the site in 2018 – but it’s obviously a prairie. I see bee balm, gray-headed coneflower, partridge pea and other common prairie plants. The tents are placed in tidy rows inside some of the plots.

The University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign owns this land and is using it as an outdoor laboratory where researchers and students can address agricultural or ecological questions. Entomology professor Alexandra Harmon-Threatt has taken advantage of the opportunity. She is the driving force behind this carefully planned grid.

Two years ago, Harmon-Threatt built this outdoor laboratory by planting more than 80 prairie species here, most of them flowering plants. Her mission is to attract wild ground-nesting bees. She is here to see which bees are showing up and how they’re doing. But that’s not all she’s after.

Harmon-Threatt and her team fan out into the site and get to work. There’s much to do before the sun goes down. “These are 20-by-20-meter plots, and there are 96 of them,” she says as we walk down one of the rows. “This is a large-scale experiment to see if we can manipulate the soil to benefit bees. Specifically, we want to see if we can increase nesting and decrease the presence of pesticides.”

Read the full article at the Illinois News Bureau

Publication Date: 08/07/2020
Photo credits: Diana Yates
Editor: Fred Zwicky