Effects of Rhododendron removal and prescribed fire on bees and plants in the southern Appalachians
Rhododendron maximum is an evergreen shrub native to the Appalachian Mountains of North America that has expanded in recent decades due to past disturbances and land management. The purpose of this study was to explore how bees and plants were affected by the experimental removal of R. maximum followed by a prescribed fire in one watershed compared to a neighboring reference watershed. Bees and plants were sampled for three years in both watersheds. Comparisons were based on the rarefaction and extrapolation sampling curves of Hill numbers as well as multivariate methods to assess effects on community composition. Bee richness, Shannon's diversity, and Simpson's diversity did not differ between watersheds in the year after removal but were all significantly higher in the removal watershed in year two, following the prescribed fire. Bee Shannon's diversity and Simpson's diversity, but not richness, remained significantly higher in the removal watershed in the third year. Similar but weaker patterns were observed for plants. Comparisons of community composition found significant differences for bees in the second and third year and significant differences for plants in all three years. For both groups, significant indicator taxa were mostly associated with the removal watershed. Because bees appeared to respond more strongly to the prescribed fire than to the removal of R. maximum and these benefits weakened considerably one year after the fire, clearing R. maximum does not appear to dramatically improve pollinator habitat in the southern Appalachians. This conclusion is underscored by the fact that about one quarter of the bee species in our study area were observed visiting R. maximum flowers. The creation of open areas with wildflowers may be a better way to benefit bees in this region judging from the high diversity of bees captured in the small roadside clearings in this study.