Undergraduate research award creates buzz around Penn State pollinator studies

Amy Duke
April 17, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Undergraduate research aimed at supporting pollinator health is flourishing at Penn State's Center for Pollinator Research, thanks to philanthropic support.

According to Christina Grozinger, director of the center, a private donor generously has provided an endowment of $600,000 to create and provide long-term support for the Apes Valentes Research Award, a program that annually provides awards of up to $5,000 for five selected undergraduate and graduate students to pursue research, extension, education and outreach projects focusing on pollinator biology and health. Apes Valentes is Latin for “healthy bee.”

“The students greatly appreciate this unique opportunity to develop their professional skills and expertise as part of the Apes Valentes program, and it can be a life-changing experience for them as they are defining their future careers,” said Grozinger, distinguished professor of entomology in the College of Agricultural Sciences, who also is affiliated with the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences.

She explained that in addition to supporting pollinator health, the projects serve as a platform for the students to connect with a larger, interdisciplinary community of scientists.

One of the 2018 recipients was Jonah Ulmer, who graduated from Penn State in May of 2018 with a bachelor’s degree in agricultural science and a minor in entomology. Ulmer is pursuing graduate studies and is considering an offer to study fossil insects at a museum in Germany.

As an undergraduate, Ulmer worked as a research and curatorial assistant at the Frost Entomological Museum at Penn State, a facility that houses a collection of approximately one million specimens of insects, representing at least 15,000 species.

It was his work at the museum, and his interest in helping pollinators, that inspired his project, “Hidden Pollinators: Understanding the Biodiversity of Pollinators,” a display showcasing the insect pollinators that are critical to the world but often go unnoticed in the shadow of the “more charismatic” honey bee.

“While bees are hugely important and make up roughly 60 percent of pollination events, another 40 percent of pollinators go unnoticed,” he said. “My primary aim was to increase public awareness not only about pollinator diversity, but also insect diversity. The pollinators I selected contribute immensely to the production of goods we all take for granted.”

Ulmer carried out his project last summer with the assistance of Nick Sloff, a multimedia specialist in the Department of Entomology; Michael Skvarla, director of the insect identification lab at Penn State; and Andrew Deans, curator of the Frost Entomological Museum.

“Jonah's curiosity and dedication to research is extraordinary for a student at this stage of training,” said Deans. “My interactions with him are always enlightening, and I almost always learn something new. The pollinator interactions Jonah was able to research, with funding from the Apes Valentes program, will allow him and the museum, and by extension the Center for Pollinator Research, to share these stories with a broader audience.”

Ulmer explained that there was a great deal of research that went into the development of the four museum-grade shadow boxes, which will be on display at the museum when it reopens following renovations. Each module contains a unique backdrop, a specimen for that species and case study explaining the pollinator and its significance.

He included two of his favorites: the fig wasp (Agaonidae), which has a symbiotic relationship with figs and is crucial for their pollination, and the cacao midge (Forcipomyia squamipennis), a fly that is believed to be the most important pollinator of cacao trees.

“Without the cacao midge, we most likely would not have chocolate,” Ulmer said.

“When people see this exhibit, my hope is that they understand the broad diversity of insects and how even the smallest and most unassuming ones can make a huge difference in our lives for the better,” Ulmer said. “The award and the development of this project has been an amazing experience, one that has opened up new prospects for my future.”

In addition to Ulmer, the following students received 2018 Apes Valentes awards:

  • Eris Villalona, a senior majoring in genetics and developmental biology, with a minor in chemistry. His research focused on how nectar toxicity drives bee visitation biases in milkweed.
  • Ben Simonson, a 2018 graduate with a bachelor’s degree in biology, who investigated the heat shock response in bumblebees and its relationship to their immune response.
  • Bryce Buck, a junior geography major whose project explored the influence of field soil conditions on plant productivity and nutritional value for pollinators.

The recipients all expressed their gratitude for philanthropic support of the Apes Valentes program, noting that this type of research opportunity, coupled with the mentorship of Penn State faculty and staff, are empowering them to make a difference in the world.

“The Apes Valentes program helped me gain much-needed research experience, communication skills and independence,” Buck said. “I also now have experience in public outreach and a greater perspective on how entomological research impacts the community in Centre County and beyond. I am grateful for this wonderful opportunity.”

More information about the program can be found online at https://ento.psu.edu/pollinators/publications/apes-valentes-undergraduate-research-award.

The Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences represents the foundation of Penn State and its land-grant mission to serve the public good. To fulfill that mission for a new era of rapid change and global connections, the University's fundraising campaign, "A Greater Penn State for 21st Century Excellence," focuses on three key imperatives: Open Doors, Create Transformative Experiences, and Impact the World.

Through teaching, research and extension, and because of generous alumni and friends, the College of Agricultural Sciences is able to offer scholarships to one in four students, create life-shaping opportunities, and make a difference in the world by fueling discovery, innovation and entrepreneurship. To learn more, visit http://agsci.psu.edu/giving.

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Last Updated April 18, 2019