by J.D. Herndon, '09, '10
This summer, I got to go on a treasure hunt of sorts. OK, so what I was really doing was walking around in the Chihuahuan desert of Carlsbad Caverns National Park catching native bee species. Now, I do understand this may not seem like much of a rewarding hunt. But, for the overall purpose of conservation, this is one of the most bountiful treasures I can imagine.
You may find yourself asking…Why?
First, pollination is a huge component of nature. Many plants rely on insects for reproduction. Native bees are the most efficient pollinators because they not only seek out nectar from flowers but also take pollen as a protein source for their offspring. Because native bees also carry pollen, as opposed to other pollinators [butterflies, flies, birds, bats] who only care about nectar, they will fertilize more eggs and the flowering plants will produce more fruits.
Bees are such great pollinators that a lot of flowers have evolved to depend on a specific bee species to complete their life cycle. Collecting data on what bees are visiting what plant at what time of year provides all sorts of information about the foundation of an ecosystem. The more we understand about the plants, the more we understand about any ecosystem and, frankly there is a lot that is still unknown about what pollinates what.
Secondly, this inventory can help in finding bees that can pollinate crops without relying on the honey bee so heavily. It is not a well-known fact but the European honey bees (Apis mellifera) are not native to the Americas. They were introduced because there are many of them in a hive and they are all willing to tend to different flowers. However, honey bees are not perfect pollinators because they do not take both nectar and pollen from plants and thus do not complete the plants' reproductive cycle.
In addition, honey bees may out-compete some native species. This is not good for native plants or native bees. Since honey bees are prone to disease and parasites, we need to find alternatives.
Finally, this survey is being carried out in Carlsbad Caverns because it has been found that the southwest deserts of North America harbor some of the highest bee diversity in the world. The Chihuahuan desert has not been part of any systematic bee assessment in the past, and this study has uncovered some significant new findings.
On my birthday, we caught a new species of bee that is in a genus that is thought to exist only as far north as Mexico. I’m working on a description of this new species and I get to name it. How cool is that!
So how does one survey for native bees? Well, with the guidance of Terry Griswold and Harold Ickerd from Utah State University, we established seven standardized plots to see how the bee fauna would change over time. We checked these plots, each containing 30 traps, every other week. We collected bees from plants as well and identified the specific flowering plant. This was actually quite challenging but produced valuable information not just for entomological research but also for research in botany and the life cycles of flowering plants.
Growing up in Lexington, Kentucky and spending most weekends and summers working and playing at my dad’s farm in Owen County, Kentucky I developed a love for nature. Whether it be fish, frogs, or newts swimming in the pond or seeing what has made a home of a rock or a dead tree, my curiosity had and still has no bounds. I studied biology at the University of Kentucky and took an entomology class as an elective. From that moment I was fixated on how amazing insects (and other arthropods) are in their own right and in the many roles that they play in nature and even in our everyday lives.
I knew that I wanted to do something with entomology and was lucky enough to find that the SCA had a position in Carlsbad Caverns doing a biodiversity inventory of bees. There is no adjective to describe the excitement I had when I found out that I had been accepted to this position.
This work has propelled me into a fascinating world that shows how delicate things really are in nature and how this delicate balance is interconnected into our everyday lives.
I especially want to acknowledge the support and mentoring of Renee West, my supervisor, as well as Dr. Alex Druk and Rachel Krauss who were both coworkers throughout the project.
It is so great that the SCA has allowed me this opportunity to do something good for conservation and scientific research, and helped me find a specific path to follow as a career. I am extremely grateful!
If you liked this story, you may like these, too.
Battling Salt Cedar http://www.thesca.org/hands-on/2010/01/battling-salt-cedar
Mapping Yellowstone http://www.thesca.org/hands-on/2009/10/mapping-yellowstone
Looking for Lithics in the Sonoran Desert http://www.thesca.org/hands-on/2010/04/looking-lithics-sonoran-desert
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Here are a few select photos from JD's Flickr slideshow of the "Carlsbad Caverns Bee project."
You can see more here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/the-sca/sets/72157625186594883/show/
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