Dr. Russo

I joined the Entomology and Plant Pathology Department in March 2019. I am coming to UTIA from Trinity College Dublin, in Ireland, where I completed a Marie Curie Sklodowska Individual Fellowship with Jane Stout. This was my third postdoctoral research experience: I participated in a USDA NIFA grant at Cornell University with Bryan Danforth, and an NSF DMS grant at Penn State University with Kat Shea. I have also worked at the University of Queensland in the Spatial Ecology Lab with Yvonne Buckley. My primary teaching responsibilities in the past included introductory biology and ecology and ecological modeling, but I have also helped to teach three international field courses (in Costa Rica and Kenya).

A small, cute native bee crawling up a bright, yellow flower for a good meal of pollen and nectar

Research focus

Pollinators provide critical pollination services and yet they are threatened by a suite of hazards, including habitat loss, pesticide application, parasites and pathogens. In agricultural systems, insect pollinators ensure the production of crop yield, but are also threatened by the intensification of agricultural practices. One of my primary focuses is thus identifying mutually beneficial scenarios between agriculture and conservation. For example, we demonstrated that communities of wild pollinators provide the majority of the pollination services in apple orchards in the Finger lakes region of New York. This allowed some farmers to save money as they no longer had to rent honeybee hives. However, the availability of wild pollinators on the landscape is directly linked to the availability of natural habitat, including weedy edge habitats around agricultural fields. Understanding the role of this weedy habitat in the health and nutrition of pollinators will be key to the future of sustainable pollination services that are not dependent on a single species. Another fundamental focus of my research is exploring the ways in which networks of mutualistic interactions form, how they respond to perturbations, and whether we can manage them through applied actions. This involves developing theoretical models to provide testable hypotheses, complemented by experimental manipulations of network structure. I have previously explored the role of diffuse coevolution in structuring these interactions, as well as the influence of disturbances such as species invasion and agricultural runoff on network structure.

A close-up of a small, native bee resting; you can see pollen particles stuck to his tiny hairs

Extension and outreach focus

Both mentoring and outreach are an important component of my teaching responsibilities. In particular, I enjoy teaching students (of all ages) in field environments. I have had the privilege of helping to teach three separate international field courses (twice in Costa Rica, once in Kenya), but I also regularly participate in field trips and outings on a local scale where I can teach both students and people of all ages about biotic interactions.

Close-up of an emerald-green native bee digging into a purple flower for pollen and nectar

Teaching focus

My teaching philosophy is to actively engage my students in both a classroom and a field setting. I am very passionate about taxonomy and natural history for a broad range of organisms, and this passion can be a significant advantage, but even so it can be difficult to engage a classroom full of students. For this reason, I have developed a number of strategies to get students excited about their work.


Pollinator Biology

Recent News

laura russo

Assistant Professor
office (865) 974-9719

210 Ellington Plant Sciences Building
2505 EJ Chapman Drive
Knoxville, TN 37996-4560

B.A., Biology, Oberlin College
Ph.D., Ecology, Pennsylvania State University

Professional appointment
90% Research, 10% Teaching

Graduate program concentrations
M.S. – Entomology
Ph.D. – Organismal Biology, Ecology, and Systematics

Areas of expertise
Pollination ecology, network theory, field biology, botany, entomology, invasion biology

coevolution, invasive species, mutualisms, plant-insect interactions, ecosystem services, agroecology

Information for prospective students and postdoctoral researchers
I currently am accepting graduate students. I am interested in internally motivated students and others who feel comfortable working well past the minimum target. Please contact me if you are interested in learning more about research opportunities in my laboratory.

Creative Art Microscope image

Research questions in our laboratory

  • How do we identify win-win scenarios between conservation and agriculture?
  • How do networks of interactions form between plants and pollinators?
  • What are the patterns and processes that operate on these networks?
  • Can we manipulate and manage complex networks of species interactions?
  • Can we quantify diffuse coevolution acting on the interactions between plants and pollinators?

Current lab members

  • Ms. Devon Eldridge BS: MS Student
  • Ms. Amani Khalil BS: MS Student
  • Mr. Nicholas Oldham BS: MS Student

Selected Publications
1. Russo, L, Miller, AD, Tooker, J, Bjornstad, ON, & Shea, K. Quantitative evolutionary patterns in mutualistic networks: Vicariance, phylogenetic tracking, or coevolution? Methods in Ecology and Evolution (IF 6.554) (in press). (A new method to evaluate evolutionary processes in plant-insect interactions, without requiring phylogenetic resolution.)

2. Russo, L, Park, M, Blitzer, EJ, & Danforth, B. (2017) Foraging behavior and abundance determine the relative importance of pollinators in apple orchards. Agriculture, Ecosystems, and the Environment (IF 2.859), 246: 102-108. (Unmanaged bees contribute twice the pollination services as rented honeybees; two orchard managers stopped renting honeybees saw no loss of yield.)

3. Russo, L. & Danforth, B. (2017) Pollen preferences among the bee species visiting apple (Malus pumila) in New York. Apidologie (IF 1.76), doi:10.1007/s13592-017-0525-3. (Bee pollinators of apples rely on early flowering tree species for pollen.)

4. Russo, L. & Shea, K. (2017) Experimentally increased network connectance is associated with increased bee species richness and abundance in a plant-pollinator community. Journal of Complex Networks: cnw024. (We were able to experimentally increase connectance in a bee-plant network through fertilization.)

5. Russo, L. (2016) Positive and negative impacts of non-native bee species around the world. Insects, 7(4): 69. doi:10.3390/insects7040069. (Top 20% in citations for the field of Environment/Ecology)

6. Russo, L, Nichol, C, & Shea, K. (2016) Pollinator floral provisioning by a plant invader: quantifying beneficial effects of detrimental species. Diversity and Distributions (IF 4.830), 22:189-198. (The presence of an invasive thistle increases bee abundance by over 300% and bee species richness by 35%. Top 20% in citations in field of Environment/Ecology)

For complete list of publications please visit my