Dr. Jessica Rykken is a National Park Service employee who works as an entomologist at Denali National Park & Preserve. We wanted to learn more about how she ended up in Alaska, the work she’s doing there, and what some of the unique challenges and opportunities are when it comes to working in this state.
Hi Jessica! You are doing important bee work in Alaska and I wanted to ask you a few questions about it so that folks can learn more about what it’s like to work in an iconic place like Denali. First off, can you give a brief description of what your current position is and what an average day on the job looks like for you?
I’ve worked as Denali’s entomologist since 2016. This is a rare job title in the National Park Service! My day-to-day work is a mix of research and outreach. I work primarily with pollinators and my main project in Denali has been collaborating with entomologists from the University of Alaska Fairbanks to look at patterns of arthropod distribution along elevational gradients in the park. Additional inventory work is also ongoing, and I spend quite a bit of time working with the Murie Science and Learning Center to do a variety of outreach and educational activities as well as create educational media. I am currently working with a former intern to produce a field guide to bumble bees of Alaska which I hope will reach a broad audience.
In addition to my work in Denali, I’ve been able to do pollinator surveys in a number of other Alaskan parks, and recently completed a 2-year project in which we had participants from eight parks (across 11 degrees of latitude!) monitoring plant phenology and collecting pollinators from several common Alaskan plants. Obviously, I also spend a lot of time with curatorial activities, as most of our park specimens go into the collections at the University of Alaska Museum.
Can you tell us about your academic/research background and how you ended up working where you do?
I got my PhD at Oregon State University in 2004, looking at effects of forest management on riparian ground-dwelling invertebrates (beetles, spiders, millipedes, snails) in the Pacific Northwest. I then went on to do an extended post-doc at Harvard University, coordinating an All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory (ATBI) on the Boston Harbor Islands. The ATBI was focused on arthropods and was my first introduction to working in a national park (albeit a small urban one). In the course of the project, I met Sam Droege, and he encouraged me to set out bee bowls for sampling pollinators. We ended up documenting more than 170 species of bees on these tiny disturbed islands (that’s far more bee species than we currently know from the entire state of Alaska!). By the end of the ATBI I was hooked on bees, and managed to get a series of small grants with various national parks, doing bee and syrphid fly surveys. One of these parks was Denali (in 2012). This eventually led to my being hired by the park for a larger-scale project.
My impression from having visited Alaska only a few times is that with respect to people, “community is key”. Can you speak on that, and how this impacts bee research and monitoring activities?
Alaska is a big state with few people, and especially few entomologists. We are a dedicated group though, and in Alaska, we are still very much in an “age of discovery” as far as bees and other pollinators are concerned. In addition to my work in national parks, Derek Sikes maintains a phenomenal collection and database of Alaskan pollinators and other arthropods at the University of Alaska Museum, and Matt Carlson and Justin Fulkerson at the Alaska Center for Conservation Science are also very active in bee inventory work. More recently, Casey Burns at BLM has galvanized a larger group of pollinator enthusiasts (Alaska Pollinator Coordination Group--APCG) from various state and federal agencies as well as private organizations to create and share more opportunities for pollinator inventory, monitoring, and outreach efforts.
What do you think are some of the most pressing questions about bee populations in Alaska, that could be answered through more intensive sampling?
At a basic level, we are still working on assembling a comprehensive bee species list for Alaska, even though bee diversity is comparatively low at these northern latitudes. It’s such a vast and diverse state in terms of habitats, and I think especially among the solitary bees, which can pop up in unexpected places like Arctic sand dunes, we still have many more discoveries to make. Even among the bumble bees, which seem like a relatively stable group taxonomically, new species or subspecies are being recognized and described fairly regularly. More sampling in more regions of the state will be essential to coming up with a baseline understanding of how species are distributed across Alaska.
Climate change is a significant and urgent driver of change in Alaska. Some habitats are more vulnerable to warming temperatures than others, and alpine/arctic tundra is an example of a habitat that’s literally losing ground. We have a suite of bumble bees in Alaska in the subgenus Alpinobombus that are strongly associated with tundra habitats (only one of the five species occurs in the Lower 48) and I think this group will be important to monitor with climate change. It also includes the recently described species, Bombus kluanensis, which, in Alaska, is currently known only from Denali. Alpinobombus is a holarctic group and sister species in Europe and Asia are assessed to be at significant threat from climate change, we just don’t know enough about Alpinobombus populations here in Alaska/Canada to make informed assessments.
More intensive sampling could also answer additional questions about range shifts, and shifts in phenology for bees in the face of climate change.
It may be heretical to mention here, but flies are also extremely important pollinators in Alaska, and we need to learn more about them! I include syrphid flies in all my surveys, but muscoid flies are another really abundant pollinator group.
What does the future of bee research and monitoring in Alaska look like, to you, and what do you hope to see when it comes to the integration between this work and changes in conservation policy and practice?
We have a lot of public land in Alaska, managed by various state and federal agencies, and I am encouraged to see that people from these agencies are coming together (e.g., the APCG) to promote an awareness of the importance of pollinators in our wild landscapes. I think this is a very important first step, in a place where charismatic vertebrate fauna really dominate research and management focus, funding, policy, and outreach. Making explicit connections between the health of wild ecosystems, including vertebrates, and pollinators is key. Grizzly bears in Denali rely on blueberries (not fish) to fatten up for winter, and we can no longer assume that bumble bees will always be humming along in sufficient numbers to meet the pollination demand, we must realize that they face threats too. The human connection is also important, for example, many people in Alaska rely on berries for their own nourishment.
Within the parks where I work, there is a growing realization that we need to know more about local pollinator (and insect) diversity and be able to monitor at-risk taxa in vulnerable wildland habitats, even as it is often challenging to make direct links to management policy. In general, I hope that increased awareness about the role that pollinators play in maintaining wild ecosystems will lead to increased interest and funding for pollinator research and monitoring, and this, in turn, will help inform conservation policy.
In our first blog post, we speak with Dr. Zach Portman, a bee taxonomist working in Dan Cariveau's group at the University of Minnesota.
Hi Zach, thank you for taking time to answer a few questions. First, can you give a brief description of what your current position is and what an average day on the job looks like for you?
I am the bee taxonomist in the Cariveau native bee lab at the University of Minnesota. That means I am the one who identifies all the bees for many different projects. In Minnesota alone, there are over 400 species of bees, many of which are poorly known and difficult to identify, so that’s what I spend most of my time doing. In terms of an average day, I spend a lot of time at a microscope looking at specimens. Though I also do a lot of work helping out with various projects, especially writing up results for publication in scientific journals.
What group of bees do you focus on in your research?
I did my PhD research on the genus Perdita, which is an extremely diverse group of bees that are mostly found in the arid areas of the western US. Since then, I’ve broadened my focus and become more of a general bee taxonomist. For example, recently I’ve done research projects looking at a recently introduced bee in the genus Pseudoanthidium as well as uncovering a cryptic species in the genus Andrena.
Earlier this year, you published a forum article about bee monitoring in Annals of the Entomological Society of America. In it, you outline a major conundrum when it comes to monitoring native bees: that each of the primary methods has its own inherent flaws and biases. Can you briefly describe this conundrum?
The fatal flaw with all the common methods (bowl trapping, vane trapping, and netting) is that they don’t actually measure bee abundance. The reason for this is that we don’t know what proportion of bees from the surrounding community are caught. For example, if you catch 100 bees in a bowl trap, did you catch 1%, 10%, or 50% of the bees in that area? The truth is we have no idea. Further, we don’t know how catch rates differ among the various species and how they are influenced by the environment. For example, do you catch more bees when there are more flowers because the flowers draw bees in, or do you catch fewer bees because bowl traps compete with flowers? We just don’t know.
As a result, these methods don’t allow you to detect changes in bee abundance, which is one of the primary goals of most monitoring programs.
This is further compounded by the fact that each method has taxonomic biases. For example, bowl traps catch many more sweat bees (family Halictidae) than other methods. And this is something that has received a lot of study, but only in relation to other methods. As a result, we know bowl trapping catches way more sweat bees than netting, but we don’t know which ones best reflect the underlying bee community.
Can you tell me a little bit about what inspired you to write this article?
It actually started out as a mini-rant I tweeted out due to the frustration caused by a project I was working on where I was identifying 10,000 or so Dialictus. Bowl traps catch tons of Dialictus, and for those who aren’t familiar, these little sweat bees are some of the most difficult to identity, to the point where only a handful of people in the US can identify them reliably. These specimens were from a monitoring program that was based largely on bowl traps, And I was just sitting there thinking to myself, “how in the world does this contribute towards monitoring?”
My tweet ended up generating lot of discussion, but I think my main point was misunderstood by a lot of people, since the response from many people seemed to be “I agree bowl traps are biased so we should be using other methods too!”
So, I ended up writing a long-form rant explaining why all the common methods are flawed and this grew into a full-fledged paper. Luckily, I was able to work with my coauthors, Dr. Dan Cariveau and Dr. Bethanne Bruninga-Socolar, to tone it down a bit from simply a rant about bowl traps and also try and suggest some ways forward.
There was also another strong motivating factor for me, which is that I felt like there really needed to be a voice representing the scientists who are unhappy with current bee monitoring methods. I think most bee scientists recognize that bowl traps and other passive methods are deeply flawed, but you wouldn’t know that from reading the scientific literature. There’s been a vocal minority of scientists who have been pushing bowl traps as the go-to methods for years and years. As a result, you see tons of well-meaning people and scientists who want to monitor bees who look up the best way to do it, decide to bowl trap, and then end up with tons of specimens with no idea how to identify them, no place to store them, and no idea how to analyze the data.
So this paper was my attempt to introduce a dissenting voice into the discussion and question the prevailing wisdom that bowl trapping is the best way to monitor bees.
In your article, you state that “we need to use methods that allow for more targeted collection of data that inform specific monitoring goals”. Can you give a few examples of what this type of strategy might look like?
One of the reasons I focus on trying to do more targeted collecting is because the bottleneck in bee monitoring generally occurs in the identification, storage, and analysis phases rather than the collecting phase. Especially with passive traps, it’s relatively easy to go out and collect thousands of specimens. It’s much harder to get good identifications on those specimens because there are so few people with that expertise.
So, we really need to step back and think about how to effectively monitor bees without overwhelming ourselves with a flood of specimens. And that means recognizing that we can’t monitor all the bee species. For example, it doesn’t really matter how many Dialictus or Nomada you catch if no one can identify them.
In terms of scaled-down goals, I think that there are a lot of good possibilities that include monitoring habitat specialists, monitoring focal plants to detect changes in ecosystems, or monitoring a smaller subset of species such as the bumble bees. The overall goal here is to avoid the bottlenecks that we currently face that lead to thousands and thousands of unidentified or poorly-identified specimens that don’t actually inform monitoring efforts and conservation decision-making.
Why is it important to monitor native bees at large regional (or national) scales? How does this relate to bee conservation?
Large-scale monitoring data are important because they inform other scientists, the public, and policymakers about how bees are doing. I think that the lack of good monitoring data is really hurting bee conservation efforts because it prevents us from making informed decisions about how to best allocate resources for bee conservation, especially in terms of which threats to prioritize and which habitats to protect.
If you were tasked with designing a national native bee monitoring program for the US, what would it look like? Would you target specific focal bee groups, focal plant taxa, and/or focal regions? Would community scientists be involved? What other components would your program have?
In terms of designing a national monitoring program, I think that the first step needs to be to step back and really consider what the goals are and what management decisions will change in response to new monitoring information.
I think a big problem we have right now is that there is a lot of indiscriminate collecting that falls under the umbrella of “monitoring” but doesn’t actually contribute to monitoring goals.
For a national monitoring program, I would definitely want to focus on a narrower set of bees in order to get good, actionable information, rather than trying to do too much and end up with a lot of poor-quality data. I’m hesitant to recommend specific ways to do this because I think there are a lot of potential solutions that are still being developed. Two methods that I think show a lot of promise are new genetic methods for estimating population size as well as the growing number of community scientists. Especially for bees that can be identified from photographs, community data can provide rapid preliminary data that can help detect declines as they occur, rather than waiting years to figure out that a species has declined after-the-fact, like what happened to some of our declining bumble bee species.
Lastly, I think there needs to be serious focus and funding for basic taxonomy and natural history work. For so many bee species, they are either impossible or extremely difficult to identify because their classification and identification resources haven’t been updated since the 1950’s or 60’s. Not to mention all the undescribed and poorly known species. And even for the species we can identify well, we know so little about the biology of most of them. That means we can end up in a situation where we can detect declines, but don’t know enough about the biology of a bee to be able to help it recover. Without serious funding and resources dedicated to basic taxonomy and natural history, we’re just going to end up spinning our wheels when it comes to effective monitoring.