How I came to study bees

I love to tell stories about dramatic adventures and mishaps, but I was surprised at the pleased reception I got when I recently told the story of how I came to study bees to a group of relative strangers. Naturally*, I was encouraged to share it here as well.

IMG_1071I often joke that the title of my dissertation should have been “Bees Like Thistles.”  When I tell people that they tease, “It took you FIVE YEARS to figure that out??!!”  And I reply, “Well, no.  It took me one day to figure that out.  It took me five years to prove it.”

I started graduate school in the lab of a scientist who studies an invasive thistle**.  In the first few days of my grad career, I wandered out into the field*** to take a good hard look at the thistle.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus)

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus)

I knew that I was interested in the impact invasive species have on resident or native communities, but my nascent PhD brain hadn’t formulated any real questions, so on that day, I was developing the questions that would drive the next five years of work (and possibly the rest of my career).

I crouched down next to the thistle and stared intently at it, expecting to think for a good long while.  But my revelation (and the questions that flowered from it) was nearly instantaneous.  I stood up and looked closer.  The thistle was covered in, crawling with insects.

Trichosirocallus horridus, a biocontrol weevil of thistles

Trichosirocallus horridus, a biocontrol weevil of thistles

Things were coming and going from the flowers, meandering in amongst the thorns, hiding under the prickly leaves.  And though I had never taken an Entomology course****, it seemed to me that there was a great diversity of insects there too.

Hobomok Skipper (Poanes hobomok)

Hobomok Skipper (Poanes hobomok)

My thought was, the presence of the thistle here must have an impact on the insect community!

I spent two years collecting and observing insects on and around the thistles.  I collected 40,000 insect specimens and identified them all to the order level.  At that level, only the order Diptera (flies) and Hymenoptera (ants, bees, and wasps) responded significantly to the presence of the thistles.

IMG_1156I identified all the Diptera and Hymenoptera to the family level (this took a long time, fyi).  And wouldn’t you know it, of all the families, only the bee families responded significantly to the presence of the thistle!  So, with a little help, I identified all the bee families to the species level.  All this identifying took another 2.5 years (I had several other projects running concurrently…my thesis was a ridiculously long 8 chapters).

IMG_1036Bee abundance increased 400% in the presence of the thistle.  Bee species diversity increased by almost 40%.  The response was incredible.

I study bees because of the 40,000 insects I collected and trained myself to identify, they were the only ones who significantly responded to the presence of the invasive thistle.  And they responded in a BIG way.  At the start of my thesis, I had no entomological training.  If you had asked me about bees, I would have said, “What…honeybees?”

I had no idea that there were over 20,000 species of bees worldwide, and as soon as I opened up the pandora’s box of bees, I’d never be able to catch up with my curiosity again!

Bumblebee absolutely covered in thistle pollen.

Bumblebee absolutely covered in thistle pollen.

*pun intended

**actually, two species


****still haven’t, technically


7 thoughts on “How I came to study bees

  1. The bumble bees round the corner just love the thistles growing on the hills. They can’t get enough of them. I always think it’s funny that you can observe something in nature like bees loving a particular flower, and it becomes common knowledge to plant it there to attract them, but to actually prove it takes so much longer. It must be satisfying to be able to prove your observations though!

    • The species I studied was Carduus acanthoides, the plumeless thistle. It was certainly something about the floral resources…it does have A LOT of pollen and nectar. And there are hundreds of flower heads per plant. I don’t know about protein content or sugar concentration (it’s very hard to get nectar out of the tiny florets), but I think it’s safe to say that the thistle at least provides abundant food resources.

  2. Pingback: There’s finally proof that bees like thistles! | standingoutinmyfield

  3. Pingback: There’s finally proof that bees like thistles! | standingoutinmyfield | WORLD ORGANIC NEWS

  4. Pingback: Pollinators make an awesome study system | standingoutinmyfield

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