Research on the impacts of extreme heat on blueberry pollination

Jenna Walters, a graduate student at Michigan State University, shares her passion for entomology and insect photography, and her research on the impacts of extreme heat on blueberry pollination.

“My research is focused on understanding the impacts of extreme heat on blueberry pollination. Specifically, I seek to understand the impacts of extreme heat on the reproductive performance and production of blueberry plants and their native pollinator bees.

“For some contexts, wild blueberries are native to Michigan, and these wild blueberries have been used to grow blueberry crops, which are managed in agricultural landscapes. Michigan is a leading producer of northern highbush blueberries, yielding about 100 million pounds each year. This performance is largely attributed to blueberry pollinators, both wild and managed, performing the much-needed pollination service.

Germination occurs and pollen tubes travel down the style of the flower to fertilize it, which turns into seeds. The greater the number of fertilized seeds in a blueberry, the larger it is. For the bee, pollen is the main source of protein and lipids for bees. A nutritious diet of pollen during larval development leads to larger, healthier and more resistant bees.

So what happens if that pollen is exposed to extreme heat? As climate change intensifies, extreme heat events have increased in duration, frequency, and intensity. This is true globally, including Michigan. In 2018, there was extreme heat during the blueberry bloom, and we saw a yield loss of 30 million pounds compared to the previous year. Extreme temperatures are rare in Michigan during the spring, so this phenomenon was totally unexplored. We know even less about how that heat wave might have affected the bees' subsequent development, health, and populations. By discovering the ways in which heat affects blueberry pollination systems, we can create strategies to protect them as climate change continues to intensify. '

Why study entomology?

Insects are amazing! They have been stewards of the earth long before humans, with fossil evidence suggesting that insects lived on Earth some 479 million years ago. Insects also have the highest biomass of terrestrial animals, with an estimated 10 quintillion individual insects alive at any one time, meaning there are 200 million insects for every human. Insects have shaped the way people live, the food we eat, and the landscapes we live in. It is incredibly important to understand the history and influence of insects, but many unknowns remain. It is exciting to be part of a field that has so many mysteries to discover.

Who or what inspired your interest in entomology?

I found my passion for entomology when I was a student working in Zsofia Szendrei's laboratory. At the time, I didn't consider entomology a career path, but I wanted to have a paid summer job doing research and I was lucky enough to be hired. I worked with Adam Ingrao looking for biological control strategies for asparagus pests and during our long three hour field trips, Adam and I talked about insects and ecology. 

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