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?
“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.
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.