Archives For Plant Science & Conservation

Conserving plants is one of the most significant challenges of our time—and a major focus at the Chicago Botanic Garden. From studying soil to banking seeds, from restoring habitats and protecting endangered plant species to developing new ones, Garden scientists are fighting plant extinction, pollution, and climate change through diverse and exciting research.

Bees in the Big City

Andrea Gruver —  August 15, 2018 — 3 Comments

The plants you see from your train seat on the Metra Union Pacific North line may help conservation scientists learn about how urban areas impact native bees.

Although most people think of honeybees when they think about bees, there are more than 4,000 native bee species in the United States and 500 species in Illinois alone. Like their honeybee counterparts, native bees are undergoing global declines, making them an important conservation concern. With the growth of urban areas, native bees may be faced with new challenges, yet we don’t know the extent that urban areas impact native bees.

My research at the Chicago Botanic Garden is investigating how urban areas may affect native bees in Chicago. Chicago is an ideal city to study the impact of urbanization on native bees because the intensity of urbanization slowly wanes from the urban core of the city out into the surrounding suburbs.

Megachilid (leaf cutter) bee

My research is focused on native bee species in Illinois like these Megachilid(leaf cutter) bees.

Megachilid (leaf cutter) bee

Part of that research is about bringing public awareness to the other native bees we have around Chicago.

To explore native bee communities along this urbanization gradient, I have a series of eight sites along Chicago’s Union Pacific North Metra (UP-N) railway. I chose the sites along the rail line because they followed a perfect gradient from very urban to very suburban. I was also drawn to them because most of the vegetation around the sites is unmanaged and composed of similar species.

All of the sites vary in the levels of green space and impervious surface (concrete/buildings) surrounding the sites. Sites near downtown are surrounded by nearly 70 percent impervious surface, while sites near the Chicago Botanic Garden are surrounded by just 15 percent impervious surface.

[Click here to view video on YouTube.]

Studying bees in this area along the Metra line allows us to ask a variety of questions about native bees. For instance: Are there fewer bees in highly urban areas? Are there different bees in natural areas compared to urban areas? Do the bees in highly urban areas have different traits than those in natural areas?

Pollinator Collection Near the Metra with Andrea

Andrea and an intern collect bees along the Metra line.

This summer, a few interns at the Garden and I have been gathering and sampling bees at each of my eight field sites. To catch the bees, we use two methods. First, we set out fluorescent colored bowls with soapy water that attract and capture the bees. Secondly, we use a butterfly net to capture bees at the site throughout the day. When we are finished sampling, the bees are taken back to the lab at the Garden’s Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Plant Conservation Science Center and pinned for future study.

In addition to collecting the bees, we also record all of the flowering plants and count how many flowers are blooming at the sites.

Although our days are currently filled with fieldwork and pinning, in the fall we will spend almost all of our time in the lab identifying the bees down to the genus or species level. When we have all of the bees identified, we can then start analyzing the data for my master’s thesis and answer some of the questions we have put forth. We suspect we will see a higher abundance and diversity of bees in sites located in more natural areas with more flowering plants.

My research will help us understand how urban areas are shaping native bee communities and help us determine what landscape features promote native bee diversity in urban environments, some of which can be implemented in urban restoration projects. We also hope that this work will illuminate the amazing diversity of native bees we have here in Chicago.


©2018 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

As plant collectors, we spend a lot of time and energy researching the flora of the areas we are going to visit. We search out areas of the world where the climate is similar to that of the midwestern United States, and we make lists. Lots of lists.

Massive spreadsheets document travel plans, emergency contacts; high-value germplasm that we hope to find at each of our planned collection locations; and costs: airfare, gasoline in the country, driver wages, botanist guides, food, and lodging. All of this data is condensed into a one-page document that our hosts submit to the national environmental agencies within each country for approval and permits for the trip. Among our goals on plant-collecting trips is to collect seeds to conserve and to look for plants of horticultural interest to display in our collections.

Paeonia tenuifolia

Paeonia tenuifolia

Invariably, some of the treasures we return with are unanticipated. Such was our discovery of a very large population of Paeonia tenuifolia that was unknown to Georgian scientists in the remote and sparsely populated Vashlovani Reserve—a peninsula-shaped area surrounded by Azerbaijan on three sides, containing large rolling hills breaking into badlands—areas so heavily eroded I thought I was in the Badlands of the Dakotas.

We were in search of seeds of unusual bulbs in the Vashlovani Nature Reserve with Peter Zale from Longwood Gardens (the trip organizer), Panyoti Kelaidis from the Denver Botanic Gardens, and Manana Khutsishvili from the Institute of Botany, Ilia State University.

It was one of those breathtakingly beautiful days, with the rolling grasslands backdropped by the snow-covered peaks of the Greater Caucasus Mountain Range. Dirt roads had not been graded in quite a while, and the sun-baked ruts left over from the winter rains gave rise to the trip joke: shaken, not stirred. This was definitely four-wheel-drive country.

One of our target species in this area was Merendera trigyna, a beautiful spring-flowering Colchicum relative with pale pink to white flowers about twice the size of Crocus and blooming about the same time. Our data source was a herbarium voucher on file with the Institute of Botany Herbarium in Tbilisi. Peter had entered the coordinates into the GPS receiver after lunch, and the road seemed to head in the correct direction. A couple of hours later we were on the border with Azerbaijan and the coordinates suggested we needed to cross the border—not a match with the written description of the location on the herbarium voucher.

We continued to skirt the border, and an hour later we found a hilltop that allowed Manana to make a cellphone call back to the herbarium in Tbilisi. Thirty minutes further down the track, on another exceptionally high hill, we learned the coordinate system recorded on the voucher was from a Russian GPS system, not the American system our GPS was programmed for.

By that time it was too late to retrace our steps. In new territory for all of us, we continued on the track paralleling the Azerbaijan border, knowing that eventually it would lead us to a small Georgian town. By this time, it was about 6 p.m., and as we surmounted another rise we were greeted with thousands of fernleaf peony (Paeonia tenuifolia) in full flower. Each flower was the size of a salad plate, and a deep, intense red. Unlike the 8-inch-high representatives of this species in our American collections, the whole population was 2.5 to 3 feet in height, with an equal width. This population was unknown to the Georgian scientific community until we managed to get lost and found it in the process of working our way back home.

Paeonia tenuifolia in the remote and sparsely populated Vashlovani Reserve; the Caucases in the background.

Paeonia tenuifolia in the remote and sparsely populated Vashlovani Reserve; the Caucasus Mountains in the background.

A trip is planned for 2019 for the Republic of Georgia. It is timed to collect seeds from this population, as well as the nine other species of peonies native to this floristically rich country. Who knows what unsuspected treasures we will discover next year?


©2018 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

The Link Between Plants and Animals

Hosted by: Jeremie Fant, Garden scientist and plant genetics guru

Erica Masini —  May 14, 2018 — Leave a comment

How do you bring an endangered plant species back from the brink of extinction? The answer might be found in zoo animals.

That’s the inspiration for Chicago Botanic Garden scientist Jeremie Fant’s latest research. Fant, a molecular ecologist and plant genetics guru, is working with other botanic gardens around the world to develop conservation and reintroduction plans modeled after the ones used by zoos to protect endangered animal species.

“When we conserve plant species, it’s possible to preserve hundreds of individuals, and the genetic information they contain, by banking their seed or using cuttings to propagate them,” said Fant. “But when this is not possible, these plant collections are maintained by continually crossing with other plants to produce new seed. This is akin to animals in zoo collections. Zoos have used genetic information to develop ‘studbooks’ to decide what crosses are compatible so they maintain genetic diversity and prevent inbreeding.”

Fant’s work is based on zoological cases including black-footed ferrets in the 1980s. Zoologists created a breeding program that ultimately reintroduced the threatened species back into the wild. The zoologists used genetic information taken from the remaining black-footed ferrets, and bred a strong, biodiverse population that could keep the animals healthy and, more importantly, increase numbers, which is the aim of all good conservation programs.

Fant’s work centers on one plant in particular: the Brighamia insignis, or “Cabbage on a stick,” or as we’ve fondly named it, “Cabby.” This is Cabby’s story:

Plant Science and Conservation

Plant Science and Conservation

Plant Science and Conservation

Plant Science and Conservation

Plant Science and Conservation

Plant Science and Conservation

To stay tuned on what Fant, and the rest of the Garden’s conservation scientists are doing, check out the latest news at chicagobotanic.org/research.


Illustrated by Maria Ciaccio
©2018 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Pollinators are crucial to the health of the planet, helping with everything from the food we eat to the cycle of life. At the free Unearth Science festival this weekend, the Chicago Botanic Garden will celebrate pollinators with activities including a workshop on making native bee homes. We’ve got a sneak peek for you below.

Did you know that native bees are better and more efficient pollinators than honeybees when it comes to fruit trees? Honeybees carry pollen in sacks on their hind legs, which doesn’t always make it to the stigma of the flowers they visit (anthers are where the pollen grains are picked up; stigma is where they are deposited for successful pollination). Mason bees (Osmia lignaria) carry pollen all over their bodies, which means that the pollen has a greater chance of reaching the stigma for proper pollination. One mason bee can pollinate as many flowers as 100 honeybees. 

PHOTO: Mason bee (Osmia lignaria)

Mason bee (Osmia lignaria)

Mason bees pollinate a wide variety of flowers, in addition to fruit trees, with a particular emphasis on the rose family. They are generalists though, so they pollinate many types of vegetables too. If you are interested in growing fruit trees and vegetables in your yard, you may want to attract and support more mason bees.

Are you avoiding bees because they sting? Another reason to invite mason bees into your yard is that they are nonaggressive. Honeybees and bumblebees may defend their nests if disturbed, so bee skeps—or domed hives—are usually located on larger plots of land, not in typical backyards. Male mason bees do not have stingers, and the females only sting if they are trapped, so there is little reason to fear them.

We asked horticulture program specialist Nancy Clifton for a preview of her workshop at the Unearth Science festival with Northwestern University graduate student Marie Faust. The workshop, Native Bee Homes, is a free event that requires registration. You’ll find instructions for how to make a mason bee home below. Bring your questions about pollinators and other science-related topics to the festival, where dozens of scientists and horticulturists will be happy to answer them.

How to Make a Mason Bee Home

DIY native bee house

DIY native bee house

Supplies you’ll need:

  • Clean, 15-ounce metal can
  • Phragmite reed tubes
    (6 inches long)
  • 2ÂĽ-inch-wide bark ribbon
  • Cling floral adhesive (or similar putty tape)
  • Duct tape
    (camouflage blends in well)
  • Scissors
  • Rubber bands

Instructions:

Step 1: placing the reeds. They will stick out of the can quite a bit, so you can extend the lip of the can with duct tape around the reed bundle.

Step 1

Fill the metal can with as many reeds as you can tightly pack inside. Ensure the open ends of the reeds are facing out. Use duct tape to encircle the parts of the reeds that are sticking out of the can.

Wrap 3 strips of bark ribbon around the can and extension.

Step 2

Cut three strips of bark ribbon to wrap around the can and the duct-taped extension. Use bits of Cling adhesive to adhere the bark ribbon to the can in three sections, so it is completely covered.

Make a roof with bark ribbon and duct tape.

Step 3

Cut two 8-inch-long pieces of bark ribbon and duct tape them together along the long edge. Place this over the top of your can as a roof. You want to create a small gable that overlaps ½ inch over the end of the tube to keep the reeds dry when it rains.

Place the bee house against a flat surface in a protected area, with a southwest exposure.

Step 4

Use bits of Cling to adhere the roof to the house. If needed, further secure the roof with two rubber bands. Place the completed bee house fairly in a protected area, against a flat surface with a southwest exposure. Placing the house fairly high up ensures that bees will not mingle with people when entering and exiting their new home.

Leave your house out all summer and you should find mason bees filling the tubes with larvae. For information about storing and incubating mason bees for next year, visit seedsavers.org.

Sign up for the free workshop on making native bee homes with horticultural specialist Nancy Clifton and Northwestern University graduate student Marie Faust at the Unearth Science festival, April 20–22, 2018. You’ll make your own native bee home just as described above.


©2018 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

When spring unfurls, the trillium are among the stars of the native wildflowers—and in coming years, the show at the Chicago Botanic Garden will be even more spectacular.

A ground-level view of forest trilliums in spring bloom

A ground-level view of forest trilliums in spring bloom

White trillium (Trillium grandiflorum)

White trillium (Trillium grandiflorum)

Little sweet Betsy (Trillium cuneatum)

Little sweet Betsy (Trillium cuneatum)

Yellow wakerobin (Trillium luteum)

Yellow wakerobin (Trillium luteum)

The Chicago Botanic Garden is collaborating with the Huntsville Botanical Garden in Alabama on a Trillium conservation program for the beloved woodland flower. The Huntsville Botanical Garden has one of the most complete collections of Trillium in the United States. In April, Andrew Bunting, assistant director of the Chicago Botanic Garden and director of plant collections, will pick up carefully selected rhizomes, or underground horizontal stems, from Huntsville’s collection.

Biota of North America Program (BONAP) map of Trillium in the United States

Biota of North America Program (BONAP) map of Trillium in the United States

When he returns, the rhizomes will be grown out in the nursery, and in two to three years, the Trillium plants will be replanted in areas to be determined throughout the Garden. 

Currently, the Chicago Botanic Garden has eight species of Trillium growing in the McDonald Woods, the Sensory Garden, the Native Plant Garden, and Lakeside Garden. If all goes well, the Huntsville transplants will bring dozens of more taxa, or individual types of plants, to the Garden. 

When we began our collaboration with Huntsville, we catalogued each of its Trillium species to evaluate which ones from its collection might grow in our limestone-based soils and USDA Zone 5 growing conditions. Typically, the species likes the rich, acid soils and deep shade of the ancient eastern forests. But there are several species that thrive in the more alkaline soils across the Midwest. Our goal is to expand the range of growing areas for some species and increase the overall diversity.   

Trillium plant parts illustration.

Trillium plant parts illustration from Trillium, by Fredrick W. Case and Roberta Case, Timber Press, Portland, Oregon, 1997.

Urban growth and development over the years has cleared the forests in many of the natural habitats of the species. Some species, like Trillium persistens, are extremely rare and considered endangered. Trillium are so beloved that they have appeared on two U.S. Postal Service stamps.

Come for an early spring walk to look for trillium and other wildflowers in the McDonald Woods. Or join a free guided McDonald Woods wildflower walk at 1 p.m. on Saturday, April 21, as part of the Garden’s new Unearth Science festival.


Marcia Glenn

Marcia Glenn volunteers with Andrew Bunting and the Plant Collections team, and Lisa Hilgenberg in the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden. She has more than 30 years of experience in agriculture, international trade, government policy, and management, and has served on several boards. She has a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree in agricultural economics and is a master gardener.


Photos by Huntsville Botanical Garden
©2018 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org