Multi-faceted analyses of plant-pollinator interactions: From ecological communities to individual foraging decisions

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Borchardt, Kate
Major Professor
Toth, Amy
Schulte Moore, Lisa
O'Neal, Matthew
Kadelka, Claus
Wilsey, Brian
Committee Member
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Ecology, Evolution, and Organismal Biology
Ecosystems are complex communities of interacting species and abiotic factors. A single species cannot be fully understood without the direct and indirect interactions it has with the rest of its community and environment. Therefore, it is crucial to understand how behavior and species interactions influence ecosystems at multiple scales – from ecosystem functions to individual decisions. I provided evidence from the literature on the benefits of using a systems-ecology approach to informing conservation practices and applied this methodology to a conservation practice planting native prairie plant communities within crop fields called “prairie strips”. I found improved ecosystem functions and bee body condition in crop fields with prairie strips versus conventional crop fields, and these benefits were not negated by the presence of a commercial-sized apiary during the first half of the season. Zooming into the organismal level, I investigated historical assumptions about wasp pollination and found wasps are comparable to bees in some pollination metrics and show evidence wasps may be important pollinators of native prairie plants. For example, I showed the plant species complex Solidago canadensis had higher pollen deposition when visited once by a male paper wasp Polistes fuscatus compared to when a flower was freely visited by P. fuscatus and Bombus impatiens. Lastly, I used a matched field and individual-based model to determine how bees use past experiences to alter foraging behavior. I found the foraging behavior of the bumble bee B. impatiens consistently lagged behind shifts in floral resource abundance, which was mostly caused by a large capacity for remembering past experiences. Overall, this research highlights how different factors such as floral resource community composition and individual foraging behavior can influence entire ecosystems. I recommend further incentivization and promotion of practices such as prairie strips that integrate native habitat into agricultural landscapes, more research into non-bee pollinators such as wasps that have the potential to provide pollination and pest-management ecosystem services, and to use current understanding of foraging behavior and community composition to design conservation habitat that improve populations of pollinators most in need of conservation. By focusing on pollinator foraging behavior and plant-pollinator interactions, conservation practices can shift the focus to conserving the system of supports and functions that lead to long-term community stability.