Department of Horticultural Science
As pollinator gardens grow in popularity, Marisol Mata wants to make sure they are giving North Carolina’s native bees the nutrition they need to thrive.
Her work can also help us glimpse the future — how changes in global weather patterns could affect nutrition for one of our smallest but most important eco-partners.
“People call a lot of flowers ‘pollinator-friendly,’ but we have no idea what their nutritional quality is,” Mata said.
A balanced bee diet comes in two servings: nectar, for carbohydrates to be turned into energy, and pollen, for the protein that helps them grow. Mata zeroes in on pollen.
In four isolated growth chambers at NC State’s Phytotron facility, Mata is testing a variety of native plants with a mix-and-match of environmental changes in nitrogen levels, CO2 levels and temperatures.
“We’re trying to see into the future,” Mata said. “Based on the conditions we expect climate change to produce, we’re looking at the effect those changes will have on the nutritional quality of pollen.”
To do that, Mata uses an electric toothbrush to shake flower pollen into a tube for chemical analysis. And to make sure we know what bees eat in the wild, Mata enlisted volunteers to identify and count native bees on flowers in the J.C. Raulston Arboretum starting last summer. She hopes to have enough data for at least two peer-reviewed publications by spring 2018.
Bees are close to Mata’s heart: She grew up on her family’s honey production farm in Argentina, founded by her father when he was 16 years old.
“My entire life and scientific career has been supported by bees,” Mata said. “It’s only fair I give some of that back to them.”