UCR Magazine The Magazine of UC Riverside

Fall 2016

Past Issues

The Search for the Arctic Bumblebee

By Sean Nealon

Writer Sean Nealon travels with a team of UCR scientists as they track Bombus polaris, an elusive bee that could teach us about climate change in the Arctic, one of the least-understood environments on Earth.

Alaskan trip map

Map of Alaska showing the trip starting at Fairbacks, continuing on to Yukon River Camps, Arctic Circle Campground, Marion Creek Campground, Atigun Pass, Galbraith Lake Campground, Toolik Field Station, and ending at Franklin Bluffs (near Deadhorse).

Day One

After the Thai food, with sunny skies and a temperature in the mid-70s, a warmer-than-usual temperature that persisted for most of the trip, the team headed north on Highway 2 in two vehicles — a Ford Expedition nicknamed the “Bee-spedition” and a 22-foot-long Ford F-350 known as the “Bee-hemoth.”

Day Two

In the morning, insect nets in hand, the group set out to catch bees. “We’re lucky because we can look for things bees depend on, such as flowering plants. It’s a visual signal, so when we see a patch of flowers we stop to look,” Woodard says. Within a couple hours, the group had caught 28 bees.

Collecting and cataloging specimens.

Day Three

Breaking down camp, the team bid farewell to two bicyclists who had camped nearby. One planned to bike to Vancouver. The other expected to reach Patagonia in 18 months.

Collage of bee nunting in Alaska

Day Four

The next morning, the search continued as the caravan approached the Brooks Range, an east-west mountain range stretching to Canada’s Yukon Territory.

Collage: musk ox, bumblebee and researchers.

Day Five

On the tundra, mosquito head nets were necessary and bug spray was useless. There were hordes of mosquitoes around at all times. The wet tundra is home to more mosquitoes because it is wet; the terrain holds water because it doesn’t penetrate the permafrost below, making it a perfect habitat for mosquito larvae.

Collage of the arctic tundra.

Day Six

July 4 began as another day trekking across sponge-like tundra in search of B. polaris. But few bees were found.

Blue backpackWhat’s in the Arctic Researcher’s Bee Bag?

It’s important to study Bombus polaris because climate change’s effects are most evident in the Arctic. “Some of the things we can learn from B. polaris can teach us a lot about conservation issues and how important is it to protect them up here,” Woodard says.

At the moment, it hasn’t been assessed whether B. polaris is endangered; “not enough people study them to know.” Woodard and her team know that the bumblebees have a short season. Queens live for about a year; they emerge in the fall as a new adult, mate over winter, and start a colony in spring. During the winter — when it gets to about 40 to 60 degrees below freezing in the Arctic — only queens survive; they spend the winter in an inactive state. In the spring they forage and raise their temperatures to build their colonies. Worker bees have a life span of about a month; during that month, they build colonies, forage, and reproduce. Here’s a look at the tools the researchers packed for use in the Arctic.

forceps

Forceps To help in the careful handling and identification of the bees.

Three labelled plastic vials

Collection Vials Bees are placed in ethanol to preserve them for future, genetic analysis. It’s possible to study a bee’s DNA by just making a tarsal snip (which means cutting off its back foot). But bringing bees back to the lab to study their guts helps researchers understand what internal parasites could be harming the bee populations, which pathogens affect them, and how that them impacts flowering plant populations.

blue nitile gloves

Lab Gloves To avoid contaminating the samples collected.

Fielld notebook contianing hand-written notes

Field Notebook For recording the time and place of collection, bee species, food source, quality of pollen, and gut health.

plastic squeez bottle

Ethanol Ethanol is the best preserving agent for bees, preventing their bodies from deteriorating.

page from a field notebook with flower clipping taped to the page and hand-written notes

Plant Cuttings Studying the flowers that B. polaris pollinates also helps the researchers understand the bee. Some important arctic plants pollinated by bumblebees include wild berry species (blueberry, lingonberry, cloudberry, cranberry), which produce fruits eaten by local people and wildlife. Another group of plants—willows—flower very early in the year, providing food to bumblebee queens as the snow melts.

Mosquito Head Net

Mosquito Head Net Studying the flowers that B. polaris pollinates also helps the researchers understand the bee. Some important arctic plants pollinated by bumblebees include wild berry species (blueberry, lingonberry, cloudberry, cranberry), which produce fruits eaten by local people and wildlife. Another group of plants—willows—flower very early in the year, providing food to bumblebee queens as the snow melts.


Day Seven

A Facebook live chat with Woodard hosted by the New York Times started the day and quickly drew tens of thousands of online views.

Collage: researchers in Alaska

Days Eight to Fourteen

The team, minus Diez and Purcell, who had left the previous night to return to Fairbanks, continued north to Deadhorse, a town about 10 miles south of the Arctic Ocean that serves as base for workers in the nearby oil fields.

Collaborating Across Disciplines in Pollination Research

One high-level administrative initiative at UC Riverside helped fund the university researchers’ trip to Alaska and another aims to make the university the leader in pollination research. The $30,000 collaborative seed grant from the Office of Research and Economic Development helped initiate new research directions for faculty and to make UCR more competitive for multidisciplinary grants.

Researchers — like Woodard and company — will use their preliminary results from the research funded by this grant to compete for larger grants.

It’s part of UCR’s commitment to help increase research funding for its faculty. “We have high caliber faculty at UCR and our faculty are becoming increasingly competitive at the federal level,” says Vice Chancellor for Research and Economic Development Michael Pazzani. “We have a goal of tripling our funding in 10 years,” he said. “To do that, we need about a 12 percent annual increase.  I am happy to say UCR is on track to do that.”

The Arctic bumblebee research also ties in with plans by Chancellor Kim Wilcox and Provost Paul D’Anieri to add 300 faculty positions in the coming years.

Many of those hires will come via a concept called cluster hires, which calls for hiring groups of faculty in 34 vital and emerging fields of scholarship to build critical mass in those areas and foster cross-disciplinary work.

One cluster hire area is focused on pollination research.

UCR aims to hire collaborative biologists examining issues related to bee health, pollinator and plant interaction networks and evolutionary ecology of pollination from the plant perspective, as well as a resource economist. Thirty-five percent of the world’s food and about 87 percent of flowering plants require pollinators for their reproduction; bees provide the majority of these services. Knowledge of the pollination interactions in these systems can provide solutions to health and management problems.