Collecting bees in the desert

Image of blooming cactus.

I cannot wait to be back on the ground in Utah. This place is special. I am always amazed by how a space so open and vast can embrace you so closely with its colors, smells and sounds. If you really want to understand the desert, you have to move at a different pace and look at it with different eyes – just like learning to speak in a different language. Finding bees here requires you to move with that same pace and with the same eyes. I am counting down the days until we’re back at this.

Joe, however, has already been lucky enough to get out into the desert looking for bees. At the end of March, he, Lindsey and their family spent a weekend helping colleagues search for pollinators in an area right next to the Grand Canyon. Specifically, they were focused on pollinators visiting an endangered cactus (Pediocactus bradyi) that only grows on the cliffs overlooking this natural wonder.

Image of cliffs overlooking rapids.
Joe looking for cacti on the cliffs.
Image of person with net looking at cactus on the ground.
Lindsey waiting patiently for pollinators to visit a small blooming cactus.

Unfortunately, by the end of the trip, they hadn’t found any pollinators on the endangered cacti – which may have been the result of chilly weather blowing through. However, Joe did find a few bee species on other plants in the area. Interestingly, he only found males, which tend to emerge before the females.

Image of four different bee species.
Joe found males of four different bee species. Top row: Osmia, Andrena. Bottom row: Eucera, Anthophora

But this is exactly what it’s like to survey bees – or any species – in a specific area in short span of time: you’re never certain what you’re going to find, but it sure will be interesting. This is the same uncertainty and thrill we have waiting for us this spring.

The desert always moves in its own unique way, and I can’t wait to see what it will show us this time around.

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Meet Mariana… and our new logo!

Image of Bees of Grand Staircase-Escalante logo

There’s one thing that’s essential to the success of a project like this: a kick-ass logo! And now we have one, thanks to the rock-star work of Mariana Prieto.

Mariana is a designer dedicated to the development of innovation in wildlife conservation; she’s focused on solving challenges that are rooted in or affected by human behavior. “Anywhere you have human beings who are making choices, you can have design,” Mariana says. And protecting the wild places of this world is all about the choices we make.

Image of Mariana with sunglasses.Mariana rarely does work as a graphic designer. Yes, she’s an amazing illustrator and is co-creating a graphic novel series about superheroes who protect endangered animals. But her time, energy and skills are mostly committed to Design for Wildlife, a collective of creative talent working to support wildlife organizations facing a variety of challenges. Fortunately, she was all in on our request for help with our visual identity.

“I love bees!” she says. “The graphic novel doesn’t include any bees. But now I might have to add some!”

Big thanks to Mariana for her contribution to the Bees of GSENM project. We are thrilled to have her on our team!

You can read more about Mariana on our Team page.

Meet Tony, our director of photography

Image of fim crew in desert road.

For a project like this to succeed, you need to have someone who is both gifted and experienced at the art of visual storytelling. And Tony Di Zinno is our man!

I first met Tony in the Black Hills of South Dakota, shooting photos and film for a three-day musical and cultural gathering of the Lakota Sioux and other Native people. As we maneuvered on the edges of both stage and meeting grounds, seeking the perfect angles from which to tell the story of this event, Tony’s mastery of the lens was obvious. And the respect he conveyed as a guest in this special place was evident in everything he said and did.

Image of Native American performer on stage.

Tony’s career has been one of telling beautiful stories of endurance and fortitude, environmental activism, and social justice. Tony got his start working for a Rolling Stone photographer, then broke out on his own shooting portraits and action shots of iconic sports figures for Adidas, Nike and The North Face. He moved on to photographing and filming extreme motorsports and human-powered racing events across the globe, and eventually landed in Afghanistan working with Mountain2Mountain – a project that operates in conflict zones to create education and opportunity for women and girls to be agents of change within their own communities.

“I’ve never tolerated bullies of any kind since I was a kid,” says Tony, speaking of the social issues he’s embraced. “This really hasn’t changed as I’ve grown up. In fact, it’s only become a deeper conviction.”

Tony currently works with the Endangered Activism project, which is focused on engaging youth culture and reconnecting young people with the natural world through uniquely modern visual storytelling.

One of the things I admire most about Tony is his mantra of preparation. “It’s only the best prepared who are ready for when the most fleeting, ephemeral and sublime moments present themselves,” he says. There may be no better example of this mantra in practice than a recent trip to Botswana, where Tony captured on film a leopard hunting and striking its prey. It was such a rare moment that even the guide he was working with couldn’t believe they saw it happen. (Be forewarned: the following video captures a moment of Nature that is truly red in tooth and claw.)

“When something happens so quickly and there is no warning, the reward only goes to those who have prepared for success in anticipation of these possibilities,” says Tony. It’s exactly this level of preparation and discipline that we’ll need to film the bees in Grand Staircase-Escalante. We may only get one chance to capture any given moment of their exquisite little lives.

Tony’s thoughtful way of being in the world and his vast experience have helped this project become what it is today. Telling the story of the monument bees has not been an easy one; it started out as a print story and tripped plenty of times in the pursuit of publication – including having different media outlets show interest in the story and then back away. When I was at one of my lowest moments in the journey, it was Tony who asked, “Have you ever considered making a documentary to reach even more people than any single article could?”

I had not, of course. So I responded, “Have you ever considered working on a documentary about bees in one of the most beautiful places on Earth?”

Fortunately for all of us, Tony didn’t just recognize the opportunity for making this story even more impactful; he was also game to take it on.

You can read more about Tony on our Team page.

Meet Olivia and Joe, our bee researchers

Image of researchers in monument area.

Olivia and Joe are an amazing pair of researchers to be working with on a project like this. Their knowledge of bees is astounding; their passion for bees is inspiring. To get just a flavor of what they bring to the study of these little creatures, check out the book they co-authored – literally “the book” on bees in North America – filled with amazing photographs they’ve captured over the years.

But it’s not as if either Olivia or Joe were necessarily destined for melittological* greatness. So how did they end up at the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in the early 2000s doing such important work?

Image of Olivia in monument area.

“I never thought to myself: I’m going to go to college and I’m going to learn about bees,” says Olivia. “That wasn’t really the plan.”

Olivia’s plan, such as it existed, was to find a career that paid her to spend time outside – and becoming a biologist was just the ticket. But as a freshman she had to find a job to make ends meet while in pursuit of her goals. The bulletin boards on campus were tacked full of “now hiring” notes fringed with tear-off phone numbers for countless different opportunities.

“But there was one that said something about a museum and bees or something,” recalls Olivia. And the pay was higher than all of the others. “So that seemed pretty good.”

She applied for and got the job – which turned out to be a position working in a giant museum of bees. “These were all bees on pins, specimens from around the world,” she says. There were brilliant green and blue bees; huge bees and tiny bees; bees with tongues so long that they wrapped all the way around their bodies. “They were beautiful and intriguing and not at all what I expected. And I got paid to have to look through these drawers all of the time.”

Very quickly her boss (and later her mentor) recognized that this was more than just part-time employment for Olivia. So when he received funding to do a survey of the bees in Pinnacles National Monument in California, her boss asked Olivia if she would like to be the collector.

Olivia jumped at the opportunity. “I would go out with a net and hike the trails and collect bees,” she says. “I had to camp for three months straight which was like a dream come true! My life was perfect! By the end, I was insanely hooked on learning more about bees.”

Right around the end of Olivia’s senior year, Grand Staircase-Escalante was officially designated as a monument; the land was specifically set aside as a place for scientific research. Olivia and her mentor put together a proposal to do a big, intense bee survey of the area. “Definitely bigger and more intense than what I’d done in Pinnacles,” she says.

Needless to say, they got the funding. The project ran for four years (2000-2003), and the knowledge it produced is the basis for the research we’re returning to do this spring.

Image of Joe in monument area.

Joe’s story is a little different in that, for as long as he can remember, he’s always been interested in insects. In fact, he grew up wanting his backyard to be a nature sanctuary, and spent his time looking under rocks and logs for creatures that populated his homemade preserve.

But like Olivia, Joe was drawn to bees later in life for practical reasons.

“I got into bees because in college I met this girl that I was interested in,” he says with an unabashed smile. The girl’s name was Lindsey, and she and Joe are now married with a family. “She came back from a summer-long job in the Grand Staircase National Monument. I liked her so I volunteered in the lab she worked in and it happened to be the bee lab.”

The job in the monument was, of course, surveying bees. And their lab boss was Olivia.

“Lindsey told me I ought to consider hiring this guy Joe for the next year because he was totally into natural history, he was great with a net, and he already had his own insect collection,” recalls Olivia. So she interviewed Joe and quickly brought him on board. The following summer, he was out in the monument helping uncover this amazing world of bees.

“That experience worked out pretty well for them,” Olivia says with a smile.

It worked out well for all of us. Because of Olivia and Joe – and Lindsey and the entire team they’ve worked with – we now have incredible insight into this hotspot of bee diversity. And the bees have two smart and passionate advocates in their corner.

You can read more about Olivia and Joe on our Team page.

* melittology (mel·​it·​tol·​o·​gy | \meləˈtäləjē\) n. a branch of entomology concerning the scientific study of bees.