Pop quiz! What do you know about bees and soil?

Pop quiz: What are three things about the relationship between bees and soil that every bee expert and citizen scientist should know?

Stumped? Me too. Fortunately, Dr. Alexandra Harmon-Threatt, an associate professor in entomology at the University Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is not. She’s currently studying this relationship. And here’s her Top 3 list of facts we should have ready at all times.

1. Over 80% of bees nest below ground.

2. Access to soil is essential to the life cycles of these ground nesting bees, and things like mulch and heavy leaf litter can get in the way.

3. Most nests seem to be found in soils with moderate to high amounts of sand; this likely has something to do with the moisture level.

Don’t feel bad if these things didn't immediately leap to mind. Understanding this relationship between bees and soil is a fairly new area of study, and Harmon-Threatt says our current basis of knowledge is both immense and minute at the same time.

“I know that sounds weird,” she explains, “but for a few species of bees we know a lot including how they interact with nest mates below ground… but for most species we know nothing.” In her review of the literature, she found there was information about this soil relationship for around 25% of the bee species investigated – and even in those cases the information could be as basic as someone simply observing a bee going below ground. “I think people have been intrigued by this area but the work is laborious and the payoff is pretty small,” she says. So, consequently, most of the information we do have is anecdotal, sparse or incomplete.

Which also means we don’t currently know what a pristine, healthy soil environment for bees looks like. Historically (and understandably) we’ve been focused on the relationship between bees and flowers, so we now have some excellent reference points for assessing change over time in pollination networks and bee communities. It’s just too bad that we don't also have a Charles Robertson body of work for bees and soil.

But this is exactly why Harmon-Threatt and others are blazing trail over (and under) this uncharted terrain. She and her team are conducting a large-scale experiment to see if they can manipulate soil to benefit bees. In a carefully planned series of prairie plots, Harmon-Threatt is tweaking the presence of pesticides and carbon to see if she can affect contamination, plant establishment and bee nesting all at once. What she learns could help develop new practices that farmers, gardeners and land managers could regularly use to improve soil conditions for bees

It’s interesting to think that one day we might start talking about soils in exactly the same way we talk about flowers in relation to bees: inseparable.

Maybe that day is today.

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