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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Reward for you: Special thanks in the film credits

Image of film credits.

Wh-What?!? Our ioby fundraising campaign for this project passed the $5,000 mark on Sunday night and kept on moving today! This deserves a little bit of love in return. So how about this: Everyone who contributes to the campaign will get a special thanks in the film credits! Because no matter the amount, it’s your support that’s making this essential science and the film documenting it possible.

You rock, my friends!

Why do we need to crowdfund bee research?

Image of bee collection.

It’s only been a few days and our ioby campaign for the Bees of GSENM is off to a fantastic start! We ended our third day $3,327 closer to our goal. Thank you to everyone who has given to the project so far. Let’s keep this rolling.

Of course, this whole project raises an interesting question: Why do we need to crowdfund fieldwork and research on bees? Aren’t there official agencies that provide money for projects like this? The answer is not a satisfying one.

The Atlantic has a great story about the recent “Insect Apocalypse” headlines, exploring how we really need more data to make such bold statements (although the data we do have definitely points in this direction). The piece addresses funding as part of the problem:

Few researchers have kept running tallies on insect populations, aside from a smattering of species that are charismatic (monarch butterflies), commercially important (domesticated honeybees), or medically relevant (some mosquitoes). Society still has a lingering aversion toward creepy crawlies, and entomological research has long been underfunded. Where funds exist, they’ve been disproportionately channeled toward ways of controlling agricultural pests. The basic business of documenting insect diversity has been comparatively neglected, a situation made worse by the decline of taxonomists—species-spotting scientists who, ironically, have undergone their own mass extinction.

What’s more, the funding that could be available for monitoring bee and other insect populations are getting much harder to come by. Over the past decade, there’s been a flattening of federal spending on basic research (defined as “activity aimed at acquiring new knowledge or understanding without specific immediate commercial application or use”) and there are more and more scientists competing for this same pool of money. The overwhelming majority of federal science funding goes to biomedical research, and what money remains typically goes to projects that get flashy results – not projects focused on monitoring or replication of results.

A team of journalists at Vox put together an extensive piece about the problems facing science, including another really important point about funding:

Grants also usually expire after three or so years, which pushes scientists away from long-term projects. Yet as John Pooley, a neurobiology postdoc at the University of Bristol, points out, the biggest discoveries usually take decades to uncover and are unlikely to occur under short-term funding schemes.

One thing we’ve learned from Olivia and Joe’s work in Grand Staircase-Escalante is that many bee species can be readily abundant one year, nearly absent the next, and then abundant again in some following year. Which means you have to study bees consistently and regularly over many, many years to gain a true understanding of changes and stability in their communities. The current system of science funding in the United States simply is not conducive to this type of work.

“We’re between a rock and a hard place,” says Joe. “We have these questions about bees and other insects we need to answer, and nobody is willing to put forward the efforts or the funding or the resources to let us answer those questions.”

This is exactly why we’re crowdfunding the Bees of GSENM project. We want to get Joe and Olivia back on the ground to continue doing the essential fieldwork that needs to be done. Grand Staircase-Escalante is one of the few places in North America where the bee community has been studied extensively and can serve as a baseline for assessing change – both in comparing our man-made world to the natural world, and in comparing the natural world to itself over time.

“Baseline data allows us to ask the right questions and to guide our actions,” says Olivia. “What’s more, it allows us to watch for change in Grand Staircase’s own bees – in the face of the incredible change to land use now likely to occur here.”

This is exactly why your support for this project matters so much: You are helping make essential insect research possible. We thank you. And so will the bees!

This is real science

Image of crew in monument.

The Bees of Grand Staircase-Escalante documentary is more than just a film – it’s real science! We’re going back with Olivia and Joe (the original researchers) to survey and study the bees for a week. We’re going to look at how the bees are doing since 2003, and how they’re doing since the monument was reduced in size and divided up in 2017. And we’re going to capture it all on film to share with you!

We’d love to have your support to make this happen. Even $5 will help us buy a bunch of pins to mount the bees for identification!

Visit our ioby page to make a difference. And check out our trailer for the project.

Thanks everyone!