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.
I 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.
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.
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.
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.
I 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).
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!
**actually, two species
****still haven’t, technically