Buzzing With Energy: A Tale of Bees, Bonds, and Scientific Discovery in the Rocky Mountains
Dr Lachlan Jones, Fulbright Future Scholar, Funded by The Kinghorn Foundation | The University of Queensland/North Carolina State University/Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory
My Fulbright Future Scholarship led me to the picturesque Rocky Mountains to collaborate with a research team dedicated to the long-term monitoring and conservation of bees.
For the first five months, I was stationed at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, meticulously examining museum specimens collected from the Rockies. This was followed by a summer of immersive fieldwork in bee ecology at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory in Colorado, a high-elevation field station nearly 3000m above sea level. In both locations, I had numerous fantastic experiences.
In Raleigh, although my daily routine involved the somewhat repetitive task of measuring hundreds of bee specimens under a microscope, I was part of a dynamic and welcoming lab team consisting of around 15 students, postdocs, and academics. They provided a mini-course on bee identification, conducted engaging lab meetings, and offered me the opportunity to participate in unrelated projects. I even ventured into the North Carolina forest to sample ants. I have fond memories of attending Entomology department seminars (the free food was always appreciated!), basking in the sunshine during the picnic lunch of the Applied Ecology symposium, and cheering for the NC State team at a basketball match (which we won!). Additionally, I explored the beauty of Raleigh, a city adorned with grand old oak trees and stunning houses and gardens. The azaleas in full bloom transformed the city into a sea of purple and white blossoms. I became a regular at The Flying Biscuit café, indulging in its delicious biscuits, creamy grits, chicken sausage, and other Southern delicacies.
In early June, I embarked on my summer fieldwork adventure at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory. The research station, located in a mountain valley on the site of the abandoned mining town of Gothic, posed an initial challenge due to the high altitude. However, I quickly acclimated after a few days. Working alongside Becky Irwin, my supervisor, as well as Melanie, a postdoc, and Jade, a research tech from New Mexico, along with three dedicated undergraduate students (Izzy, Ellen, and Eileen), I learned the art of netting bees, identifying bumblebees, recognizing plants in flower plots, and pinning collected bee specimens. I also pursued my own project, investigating how body size variation within a bee species affected the amount of pollen it delivered to a flower. Initially planning to work with solitary bees, I switched to studying bumblebees, as their species could be identified in the field. Throughout late July and early August, my days were filled with single-visit pollinations to measure the pollen left on flower stigmas by bumblebee visitors of various sizes. The process involved bagging flowers before maturity to prevent any visitors, then removing the bag at the right time and standing guard until a bumblebee visited. I would then measure its body size with calipers before releasing it and collecting the flower to count pollen under the microscope.
While the fieldwork significantly enhanced my skills, what I cherish most about my time at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory is the interaction with over 100 other scientists stationed there. Dining in the hall, I engaged in conversations with students, postdocs, staff, and senior professors, gaining insights into a diverse range of research, from marmot behavior and shifting boundaries of ground squirrels with climate change to cannibalism in salamanders and flowering pattern shifts due to long-term warming in the mountains since the 1970s. The experience was enriched by weekly seminars, graduate student/postdoc seminars with 3-4 shorter talks (I had the opportunity to present at one of them), games nights, dancing nights, and music jam sessions. Group hikes in various mountains and valleys, along with a unique Independence Day parade in Crested Butte, where tradition dictated creating costumes from Veratrum leaves and marching to the chant “Keep RMBL weird!”, added to the unforgettable experience.
As I write this in early September, sitting in my wooden cabin beneath Gothic Mountain, I can reflect on the success of my bumblebee experiment. It proved that body size did not affect the amount of pollen the bees delivered to the flowers. Meanwhile, the work in Raleigh, involving measurements of specimens collected over 10 years at RMBL, demonstrated the resilience of body size in seven solitary bee species to the effects of variable snowmelt timing. This suggests that this trait will likely not be greatly impacted by climate change, bringing encouraging news for the future.
Yet, beyond the scientific achievements, it is the people I met and the incredible places I visited that have made this experience exceptionally enriching, fulfilling, and unforgettable.
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