You can call Wedge Watkins lots of things: wildlife biologist; bottomland bee specialist; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Midwest Region pollinator coordinator. Just don’t call him a pollinator expert.

Even though he has facilitated the documentation and specimen collection of approximately 125 butterfly and moth species and 150 native bee species at Big Muddy National Fish and Wildlife Refuge in Missouri, Watkins bristles at being called an expert.

Maybe so, but the nine-year Service veteran with 30 years of federal conservation experience has been studying pollinators at Big Muddy Refuge since 2006 – and he has helped Midwest Region colleagues rethink their approach to pollinator surveying.

Big Muddy Refuge – 11 units on 17,600 acres along the Missouri River between Kansas City and St. Louis – is just 20 years old. One of the refuge’s long-term goals is to reestablish plant communities native to the river’s floodplain. To do that, the refuge needs to be able to monitor habitat health over time.

Because pollinators have an annual life cycle in which they typically don’t migrate and live within a one- or two-mile radius, Watkins says, "they’re a good barometer of what’s happening in a particular place."

The Big Muddy Refuge goal has been to get a baseline of what is present and – as vegetation changes and ecological succession occurs – look for a somewhat predictable response in pollinator fauna. "If that doesn’t happen, or if we get some deviation from that, then we can start asking why," says Watkins.

So, from 2006 to 2008, Watkins collected butterflies and moths on the refuge. With help from the University of Missouri’s Enns Entomology Museum and Missouri Master Naturalists, he surveyed floodplain forest, wet prairie and bluff-top fields. In 2009, the focus switched to native bees – with help from recently retired Missouri Department of Conservation natural history biologist Mike Arduser and U.S. Geological Survey Patuxent Wildlife Research Center biologist Sam Droege. And now, because pollinator surveying is an economical way to monitor plant communities, Watkins has involved more than a dozen Midwestern refuges in similar surveys, most near big rivers like the Missouri and Mississippi.

"When people in the past went to look for bees and butterflies," he says, "they did not go to large river floodplains; they went to prairies. So, we’re finding out new information."

As result, Watkins can tell you a lot about pollinators:

  • In the Midwest Region’s eight states, there are about 650 native bee species; 450 in Missouri alone.
  • Honeybees and bumblebees are colonial, but most native bees are solitary – and about 15 percent are kleptoparasitic; the female lays an egg in another female’s nest (much as the cowbird does).
  • While honeybees nest in hives, most native bees nest in soil, plant stems or wood. And after the female builds a nest, provisions it with pollen and nectar and lays eggs, no adult tends the nest, feeds the young or turns the pupae.
  • Bees are the only pollinators that intentionally gather pollen; it’s their primary food source. Other pollinators – moths, butterflies, beetles, flies, bats – get pollen on themselves "pretty much by accident in their search for nectar."
  • There is evidence that certain pollinators have developed body shapes that fit into certain flowers or a tongue of a certain length/design to reach nectar in that flower. Similarly, evidence suggests that plant shapes, colors and pheromones evolve to attract and accept certain bee species.
  • While two-thirds of the food humans eat is dependent on pollination, the plant monoculture of most agriculture is "the antithesis of what you would do for good pollinator habitat."
Still, despite his decade of pollinator observation, Watkins says, "there is way more about bees that we don’t know than what we do know."