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Bee database tracks declines, pollination

Bees – key pollinators for one-third of all plant food crops – have declined over the last 50 years, with die-offs in recent years stumping scientists and making headlines.

But now, a $1.5 million National Science Foundation (NSF) multi-institutional grant – co-led by Cornell entomologist Bryan Danforth – will consolidate data from 10 natural history bee collections across the United States – including Cornell's estimated 250,000 specimen collection – and enter them into a searchable, publicly available online database at (http://www.discoverlife.org).

The project's data will allow researchers to assess past and present distributions of bee species, help establish conservation status of species and better predict global risks to bee pollination services from climate change, habitat loss and more.

"This grant was funded, in part, because of concerns about declining honey bee populations across the U.S.," Danforth said. "There is more and more interest in the role that wild bees are playing in crop pollination across the country, and this project will make available collection data on bee distributions, phenology and host-plant preferences via a centralized Web site."

The grant, from the NSF Improvements to Biological Research Collections program, will database bee collections from such collaborators as Cornell, the American Museum of Natural History, University of California at Riverside, Davis and Berkeley, Rutgers University, University of Connecticut, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service Bee Biology and Systematics Lab at Utah State University, California State Collection of Arthropods and the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum.

The Cornell Insect Collection, which was started in 1871, includes some 150,000-270,000 bee specimens representing about 3,600 species. The collection strongly represents bees of North America, though Cornellians over the years have conducted fieldwork on bees and collected specimens in South America, Australia, Africa (including Madagascar) and Europe.

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