Aswini Pai, associate professor and co-chair of biology at St. Lawrence

Mowing Less is All the Buzz: The Pollinator Project


Deborah Dudley

“I want to be clear,” says Aswini Pai, associate professor and co-chair of biology at St. Lawrence. “I study wild bees. I do not study the European honeybee. I think that has received far more attention, quite honestly, than it deserves.”

“We are faced right now with an insect apocalypse,” says Pai and “it’s important to make people aware.”

While alarming data regarding the rapid decline of all pollinators has been increasingly documented over the past 20 years, Pai has established her own study of the wild bee population inhabiting the St. Lawrence campus and surrounding area. It’s called The Pollinator Project. For Pai, the approach is from a conservation biology perspective, asking questions such as, does crop diversity in small-scale kitchen gardens translate into greater native wild bee diversity?

“I focus on kitchen gardens, small-scale vegetable gardens. And that is very loosely defined,” says Pai when describing the target sites that her students frequent to collect and identify samples. “It can be people who are cultivating vegetables for consumption during summer on their own, or it could be people connected to the rural farmers markets.”

Sites range from simple garden beds to three or four acres. According to Pai, these small plots are historically important to the food security of rural communities and to the local economy. “It’s a small-scale form of agriculture recognized by ethnobotanists who have studied it a lot in tropical regions,” says Pai, “but it has rarely been studied in the context of rural North America.”

Pai’s research focuses on how these particular wild bee populations correlate to local planting calendars, tracking the types of bees that emerge at particular times of the growing season. She believes the findings could inform a more strategic approach to planting that would be mutually beneficial to the kitchen gardens and small-scale agriculture, as well as the bees.

Pai acknowledges that the European honeybee has an important role to play especially related to plants that flower early, such as the almond crops in California, which emerge well before the native bees emerge.

“Forced pollination becomes really important in that context,” says Pai. “When you’re introducing agricultural commodities, you need to pollinate. Honeybees allow you better control as a farmer. So there’s a role that the honeybee plays,” she admits, “but there’s also this growing recognition of the role that native bees play.”

Although Pai’s research is in its beginning stages, there is early evidence that suggests small-scale kitchen gardens are an attractive habitat and have the potential to
be an important strategic partner in the conservation efforts of wild bee populations.

“As a conservation biologist, the thing that’s standing out is that if you’re planting your kitchen gardens, the site becomes really important,” Pai says. “And what’s around the kitchen garden becomes equally important.”

Thinking beyond the pollen also becomes critical. “Whenever we look at bees, we only think about their food, the nectar and pollen,” says Pai. “We do not think about other resources, such as nesting sites and disturbances.”

The student collections from local farms yielded some important preliminary findings as well. “For instance, Bittersweet Farm has high weed diversity, allowing for a ‘buffer’ of floral resources when crop flowers are scant. Similarly, the woods adjoining the kitchen garden at the St. Lawrence Sustainability Farm creates a heterogeneity of habitat, which is important and results in an abundant bee population,” says Pai. “So there’s both food as well as nesting sites there.”

In 2018, Pai expanded her study of kitchen and small local growers with student researchers tracking wild bee populations in ornamental gardens, flower gardens, and lawns. Early findings suggest that plant diversity in landscaping matters, but it is not the only factor.

“What seems to be showing up,” says Pai, “is whether you mow or do not mow your lawn. If you do not mow your lawn, chances are that you will have more bees. This is not surprising at all considering about 75 percent of the native wild bees are ground nesters. By not mowing your lawn, you literally are letting the nests be.”

Student researchers also found that there was a greater number of wild bees in ornamental parts of the St. Lawrence campus that were in a no-mow zone than the rest of campus.
“We had not expected that result,” says Pai, who noted that, even though the campus does not devote a significant amount of space to the no mow zones, “even that small bit helps.”

“A couple of takeaways that I have for people from my research so far is one: mow less, definitely,” says Pai. “two: minimize weeding, and three: create bee-friendly gardens by eliminating the use of weedicides, pesticides, and so on.”

As she searches for funding to establish a 20- to 25-year timeline for monitoring the local bee population, Pai says, “I’m heartened by the results we already have seen.”

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On March 8, 2019, Dr. Aswini Pai was awarded a $5,000 Walker Fellowship from the State University of New York at Potsdam for her project titled "Wild Bee Diversity in Kitchen Gardens."