Dr. Michael Orr is a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute of Zoology, Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, China.
Hi Michael! I want to mostly dig into your recent paper on global bee distributions that was published in Current Biology. But first, can you tell us a bit about yourself? Where do you work and what is your day-to-day life as a bee researcher like?
Thanks for having me. Always happy to chat about bees. Right now I’m a President’s International Fellowship Initiative (PIFI) funded postdoctoral researcher working on bees in Beijing at the Institute of Zoology, Chinese Academy of Sciences. I did most of my bee work in North America, especially the southwestern deserts, but have been in China for about three and a half years now. It’s probably very different from what most people think of China as, and it’s more similar to life in the USA than one might expect. I live in a bit of a shoebox but it’s an expensive area, though still very cheap when compared to western megacities. I live about a kilometer from the institute so I just walk to work. As the institute is located near Olympic Park on the north side of Beijing there’s actually a decent bit of green space nearby and, though urban, it’s not too urban. Sometimes I’m able to escape to the park for collecting or peacetime missions to visit my pet Anthophora villosula (sister species to the better-known European Anthophora plumipes) nest aggregation under a very heavily trafficked bridge located over a busy thoroughfare. Happily, I have not yet been detained for loitering in a fenced-off area under that bridge.
It gets pretty busy when I’m in the office. Things happen fast in China and you always have to be ready for whatever might come your way. Recently, most of my days involve jumping from task to task trying to gradually push several projects toward completion. It’s kind of like that carnival game where you compete with others to get a horse or something to the end of a race by shooting water at it, except I have to shoot all of them at the same time and there’s no one else with a water gun. This might sound scarily hectic to some but it’s working out alright for me so far. There are downsides, a lot of the paperwork is of course in Chinese and hard to navigate for me, but people have always been helpful with that and it’s really something you have to expect when living in another country. There are a lot of short deadlines, though, and it’s not uncommon to be asked for something like two pages of writing due basically immediately to be able to apply for a grant (it actually happened last week). But the funding is very good and there are plenty of resources foreigners can apply for even as a postdoc. Practically, I’d rather have short deadlines on a grant I have a chance at than months to prepare for a grant with a 5-10% success rate. I certainly can’t complain. I’m happy to chat with anyone who’s thinking about making the move to China, we could definitely use more bee researchers here.
How did you end up in bee world, and what are the research questions you find most interesting?
I always knew I wanted to work on insects from an early age, so I majored in entomology for my undergraduate study at Cornell. I must admit that I was initially more interested in sociality research than in taxonomy and biodiversity, and I was much more interested in ants early on (don’t tell anyone). Funny enough, it was honey bees that initially got me interested in bees, via conversations and lectures from Tom Seeley and Nick Calderone. Come my junior year, it was time for me to settle down on a subject, having dabbled previously in spiders, katydids, and invasives, and I was lucky enough to join Bryan Danforth’s lab, working closely with Mia Park on bee biodiversity in apple orchards (a fortunate sidestep from honey bees, I now believe). That’s when I first got into specimen databasing and bee identification, along with some basic molecular work. From Cornell, I’ve worked in the labs of a number of other bee people, including Sean Brady, Sam Droege, Terry Griswold, and now Chao-Dong Zhu. I’ve worked on taxonomy and systematics, various bits of evolution, some behavior, recent dabbling in macroecology… the unifying theme behind all of this is the bees, and knowing more about them than most people, but I’ve also recently got more involved with conservation work in collaboration with Alice Hughes, and that kind of applied work is definitely very rewarding as well.
These days, the questions I’ve been asking in my research seem to change a lot depending on the day and the specific manuscript I’m working on. If I had to sum it up in a sentence, as the reader might prefer I do by now: I want to know why bees live where they do, how they do so, and what we can do to help them. More broadly, I’m also interested in how we can make taxonomy (the discovery and description of new species) sustainable in the current academic climate, and the proper usage of biodiversity data for understanding distribution patterns.
Can you tell us the story behind your recent study on global bee distributions? What motivated you to do the work and how did you assemble the team of researchers who co-authored the study?
There’s a lot to unpack there. I’ve always been very interested in the distribution of bees and drivers thereof, and I know many of the others on this project are too. John Ascher and I had been talking for years about the importance of basic distributional and life history data, and about how few others seemed to recognize the value of data generation and sharing. In general, beyond bees, there are just far too many studies out there that uncritically leverage public distributional data or “expert” range polygons and then perform “global” analyses in journals that start with Sci* or Nat*. The best-available-data arguments I’m sure authors would mount to defend themselves simply amount to BAD arguments. By working with lacking, incomplete data, people are obscuring the fact that there’s so much still unknown in the world. There is still so much we don’t know, and the big issue here is that the people most able to provide this information are those other researchers pay the least attention to, and when everyone is pretending we already know everything we need to then there’s also no reason to fund further knowledge generation. Collaboration is foundational in science but somehow everyone seems to have forgotten the people actually generating the data, so we wanted to do something big that would showcase what you can do when combining real knowledge with cutting-edge methods, to show what science should optimally be like. This is a bit of a lofty goal and I doubt we accomplished much on that track but I hope we made it at least halfway, and that it makes people think at least a few seconds more before they run their models on random, unvalidated data that they just downloaded. Because this kind of work has real consequences, the ranges and richness projections people make might be the only information governments have for prioritizing protected areas or other policies, so we owe it to the organisms we study that we at least do our due diligence and at least try to get it right rather than taking shortcuts for “global” studies in high-impact journals.
The actual study took about a year to put together, but that’s on the back of an immense amount of work that others really did to set the stage for this paper. First, there’s decades of work John did documenting bee species richness worldwide, country by country, in many places even state by state or province by province. What he’s done is something special, I simply cannot overstate how important that work was for this paper. At the same time, it would have also been impossible without the technical expertise (GIS wizardry) of Alice Hughes. I could not be more impressed or prouder of how good she is at what she does (which is a rather staggering number of things). Everyone contributed but this project simply could not have happened without those two, and certainly it would have never worked out without the support from Chao-Dong Zhu and his lab.
A lot of the initial planning for this paper was done remotely, but it really all came together when John and I discussed matters in person (the third time we’d met, I think it was) at the 2018 International Society of Hymenopterists meeting in Matsuyama, Japan (over sushi, bee collecting, but sadly not karaoke). Alice and I were totally in sync at this point, following many detailed discussions, but it was really hard to convey the whole plan through email or voice calls, so I’m not honestly sure if it would’ve moved past planning if John and I didn’t have that chat in the flower garden of Ehime University (we were frequently distracted by bees so maybe somewhere else would’ve actually been wiser, oh well). What matters is that it worked and that was when I really knew we had the team fully together, when it was really going to happen.
Anyways, as for the paper itself, there’s still a lot to unpack (most I’ll drop into the next question!).
Can you summarize some of the “big picture” findings of your study?
I’ve emphasized this before but it warrants repeating. I think that our biggest message might be just how lacking biodiversity data are at present. People focus on the patterns themselves, but these could still be greatly refined both at smaller scales and for individual species (rather than for species richness as a whole). Bees are one of the hottest topics in the invertebrate realm, but we still found 1700+ species in the wrong hemisphere (E v W) in public databases. In the countries investigated, up to ~30% of documented species were incorrect. This is incredible. If someone took these data uncritically and tried to map out richness, even super coarse resolution analyses (100x100km, etc.) couldn’t account for some of these errors. This shows that not only do we need more resources for identification and digitization, we need better data stewardship. The pipeline cannot end once new specimen records are online! Methods for correction, and incentives for people to do this are so critically important to getting things right. In an ideal world, taxonomists would be readily employed for their irreplaceable subject knowledge and they could spend some of their time systematically checking and correcting these kinds of data. GBIF and others are doing the best that they can but they can’t be expected to have experts on-hand for all taxa. They are using various top-down methods for error checking and flagging, but these approaches cannot always correct the data and make them usable, often expert knowledge is needed. If there were proper hiring and career incentives to provide that knowledge, this issue would disappear. For instance, it should mean something when someone says in a personal statement that they personally verified and digitized tens of thousands of specimen records, but right now I honestly don’t think it does. In part this is because it’s a complicated matter; how should data be valued? Certainly there’s a qualitative difference between 10,000 Eurasian tree sparrow records from northwestern Europe and 10,000 records of mixed birds from Papua. There are ways these things could be weighted and properly valued but I’ve yet to see real efforts at this. As soon as such a system rolls out, though, we’d have to worry about data ownership much more….
Anyways! For the other aspects of the study, I think that this is probably best done with bullet points so the audience doesn’t get impatient. Hopefully this makes it easier for people to cite because I know no one likes having to read past the abstract to cite papers these days.
Of course, there’s a lot more than that in there, so please read the paper if this is all interesting to you.
Moving forward, what are the data that we need to better assess global distributions?
There’s still a lot of work to do. The most effective conservation work is typically done at local levels, by local stakeholders, and it takes an immense amount of data to properly plan fine-scale conservation management. (And there’s the obvious need to properly communicate out science and often incentivize conservation for stakeholders.) There are so many factors that can impact bees and we only have accurate data across continents and scales for a minority of these abiotic and biotic factors (aridity and other climate factors, plant resources, etc.). The data for bees themselves are, of course, even worse off, as we’ve shown in the paper. North America is well documented, though there’s always room for improvement, but Asia accounted for only 1% of total unique-locality records. Keep in mind that it took quite a bit of work by many different researchers in North America to bring us to this place, not just in terms of data accumulation but building up the taxonomic foundation on which all of that relies. Many other areas are not so lucky and still an immense amount of species remained undescribed or virtually unidentifiable because of lacking identification resources and reference material. This just makes things even more difficult. That’s not to say there aren’t undescribed species in North America, though, as there are quite a few in the more difficult groups that haven’t seen enough prior taxonomic work. For example, Zach Portman described nine new species of the Perdita subgenus Heteroperdita bringing it up to 22 species and I described seven new Anthophora (Micranthophora) of now 26 total. But, for comparison’s sake, Remko Leijs recently described 26 new Australian species for the subgenus Leioproctus (Colletellus), which previously had only one described species. There’s a lot of work to do everywhere, basically, and some places more than others.
This is why monitoring is so important. Right now, we need no-regret solutions that we can take to avoid the decline of bees and other vital pollinators. Some of these are easy and mesh well with other initiatives with bigger pockets (area protection, etc.), but some may conflict with the economy and there it gets more difficult. We know that we should reduce pesticide use and preserve natural areas, but by how much should we reduce pesticides and where, exactly, should we protect? We have to keep in mind that everything is controlled to some degree by economic considerations, that we will always need to find a balance between the conservation-ideal and the conservation-reality.
Right now, I think we should focus on defining a set of indicator species that are widespread enough to be compared across sites to better understand change over time; we cannot use every species because many things are too rare, but at the same time, in the USA where >60% of public unique bee locality-species records exist, we are at the point where we can use individual species rather than just total species numbers. Best case, these species can also be identified easily, which could even enable non-lethal sampling for abundance metrics perhaps with non-toxic paint marking to prevent recounts, but for many groups this will be impossible and that’s why we really do need taxonomists going forward. The importance of taxonomy and identification is immeasurable. This is one of the biggest challenges for any inventory or monitoring initiative. If you have thousands of specimens, who will put the correct names on all of them? Who will make sure all the specimens from all the sites are using the same species concepts, basically applying the same names to the same things? We can’t just bin things as “little black bees” or “big bees, maybe Xylocopa idk,” different bees have different life cycles and activity periods, as well as local habitat requirements and many other characteristics. As such, this set of representative pollinators should also encompass a diversity of life histories, so none go unaccounted for. Beyond this, we can still use total metrics such as richness, abundance, or diversity, but if we want to really dig into how species are impacted then we certainly want these types of representative species as well, to help us pull out across-species differences in reactions to anthropogenic pressures. Honestly, anyone can make a statistical test come up significant through various permutations, subsets, etc., and although we know it’s all not what you’re supposed to do, it still happens. And even when I or others call it out as a reviewer, sometimes editors ignore it. By relying on both metrics like richness and actual indicator species, we can get a much clearer view of what’s going on. Where we sample will also be critical, and in general rather than trying to sample everywhere I’m much more in favor of targeting specific ecoregions, habitat types, and maybe even in some cases microhabitats under varying management regimes from natural to agricultural to see how these different pressures impact bees in different areas. In doing so, using these various metrics, we’ll have a much better idea of what areas are most susceptible to anthropogenic impacts.
Why are bees of the genus Anthophora, and the subfamily Anthophorinae in general, so much better than bumble bees?
I’m glad that you asked that. I don’t think that there’s any one reason why Anthophora are so great, I’d actually say it’s more that they’re simply better in every possible way?
Should I regret inviting you to add extra questions?
References for further reading:
If you’re interested in the publication this is based roughly on, the paper is available open access here:
Orr, M. C., Hughes, A. C., Chesters, D., Pickering, J., Zhu, C. D., & Ascher, J. S. (2021). Global patterns and drivers of bee distribution. Current Biology, 31(3), 451-458.
For more information on data shortfalls globally, both for point data from specimen records and expert range maps, you can look at this paper:
Hughes, A. C., Orr, M. C., Yang, Q., & Qiao, H. (2021). Effectively and accurately mapping global biodiversity patterns for different regions and taxa. Global Ecology and Biogeography.
Here’s also a very relevant preprint on sampling and accessibility biases in what point data do currently exist:
Hughes, A. C., Orr, M. C., Ma, K., Costello, M., Waller, J., Provoost, P., Zhu, C., & Qiao, H. Sampling biases shape our view of the natural world.
I’d be remiss not to end by advocating greater appreciation of taxonomy. If we didn’t have taxonomists, none of the above papers would have been possible. More information on the challenges taxonomy faces and the need for greater career recognition for generating vital biodiversity data can be found here:
Orr, M. C., Ascher, J. S., Bai, M., Chesters, D., & Zhu, C. D. (2020). Three questions: How can taxonomists survive and thrive worldwide? Megataxa, 1(1), 19-27.
Orr, M. C., Ferrari, R. R., Hughes, A. C., Chen, J., Ascher, J. S., Yan, Y. H., Williams, P. H., Zhou, X., Bai, M., Rudoy, A., Zhang, F., Ma, K.-P., & Zhu, C.-D. (2021). Taxonomy must engage with new technologies and evolve to face future challenges. Nature Ecology & Evolution, 5(1), 3-4.
Janene Lichtenberg is the Head of the Wildlife and Fisheries Department at Salish Kootenai College (SKC) in Pablo, MT. We were eager to learn more about her work at SKC.
Hi Janene, thanks so much for taking time to chat with us and tell more about yourself and your work. 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?
Currently, I am faculty and head of the Wildlife and Fisheries Department at Salish Kootenai College (SKC). During the school year, I teach a combination of field, lab, and lecture classes. I try to get students outdoors as much as possible. We are in the perfect location for on- and off-campus field trips. There are forested areas and a pond on campus, and we are a short drive from montane, forested, wetland, riverine, and grassland sites. I advise students on coursework, career goals, and campus support. I also mentor some student research during the school year and supervise a bunch of student-led research projects during the summer.
Salish Kootenai College (SKC) is a public Native American tribal college in Montana, which serves multiple tribes and is located on a reservation. Can you tell us a bit more about those tribal entities and what it’s like working at a tribal college?
The Flathead Indian Reservation is home to the Selis (Salish), Qlispe (Pend Oreille), and Ksanka band of Kootenai. The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) are governed by an elected tribal council. Tribal Council appoints members of the SKC Board of Directors for planning, development, and the formation of goals, objectives, and policies for SKC. Two culture committees, the Kootenai Culture Committee and the Selis Qlispe Culture Committee, guided by culturally knowledgeable Elders, advise tribal entities on projects and policies. The majority of students attending SKC are members of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) of the Flathead Reservation but native students from over 65 tribes have attended SKC as well as students without American Indian or Alaskan Native affiliation. Some of the unique aspects of tribal colleges are the focus on culture and community. Also, our small size allows for more active learning, field trips, and focused advising.
You mentioned in an earlier conversation with me that the tribes are creating a pollinator plan for the reservation. What are some of the aims and methods for this plan?
The CSKT Natural Resources Department Pesticide Program is currently creating a pollinator plan for the Flathead Reservation. According to their Pesticide Compliance/Outreach Coordinator, Brittani Clairmont, "Some of the aims of this pollinator protection plan is to include not only domestic bee species, but also native bee species. Our program is well aware that all pollinators in general are extremely beneficial, but native pollinators in particular." The Pesticide Program Manager, Jasmine Brown, added that their program would like to see more community awareness, increased and enhanced community gardening, and more pollinator habitats in both agricultural and non-agricultural settings. Knowledge gained by native pollinator research will aid conservation efforts for pollinator planning and public outreach. According to Ms. Clairmont, "the pollinator plan is meant to provide people with a clear and distinct understanding of why the pollinators need our help, and the different ways people can help out, even at home".
I’m also really excited about your work on huckleberry pollination, which is focused on flowering phenology and pollinator visitation and involves a partnership between yourself, undergraduate researchers, your fantastic research assistant Rebekah Brassfield, and the tribes. Can you tell us more about that project, including what you’ve done so far and what you hope to accomplish in the future?
Huckleberries (Vaccinium membrenaceum complex) are a keystone berry species in the Pacific Northwest. Their berries support many animals including birds and small mammals, are an important traditional and contemporary human food, and are a primary black and grizzly bear food. However, much of their basic ecology remains poorly understood. We have conducted a variety of research projects to learn more about huckleberry phenology and ecology since 2014.
To learn more about the role of pollinators for successful berry production in the wild we set up a field experiment in 2018. We randomly assigned 30 plants to each of the following treatments: net (to exclude natural pollinators) and no additional (human) pollination, net plus additional pollination, no net and no additional pollination, and no net plus additional pollination. We found that the number of berries vary by an order of magnitude across the treatments and conclude that pollinators are essential to the production of large numbers of berries. Using focused assessments of the insects pollinating huckleberries, we determined that most of the floral visitors are bumble bees. Because huckleberries flower early in the growing season and bumble bees are the most common probable pollinators while huckleberries are in bloom, there may be a crucial codependence between huckleberries and bumble bees.
We have continuing work on huckleberry phenology and animal visitors. We hope to learn more about the mutualistic relationships of bumble bees and huckleberry plants as well as what other species support forest bumble bees once huckleberry flowering is completed. We have also expanded our work to learn more about bumble bee behavior, spatial distribution, and floral preferences both at huckleberry sites and at other locations on the Flathead Reservation. We are recording observations of the Western Bumble Bee (Bombus occidentalis), a species of concern that is being considered for listing under the Endangered Species Act. We envision that our work will provide knowledge that can benefit pollinator conservation planning.
Can you tell us more about some of the folks you’ve partnered with outside of SKC, who have helped support or advance your pollinator research program?
The primary partnership is with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes Natural Resources programs through their support of projects, interest in results, and permissions to work on tribal lands. Our primary collaborator is Dr. Tabitha Graves U.S. Geological Survey, Northern Rockies Research Station based in West Glacier, Montana. Dr. Graves initiated the huckleberry phenology and bumble bee research on the Flathead Reservation. She has provided valuable advice on research study design and methodology for many of our projects. She partners with a larger regional project to learn more about the potential effects of climate change on huckleberry phenology. She is overseeing several projects in other parts of Montana involving bumble bees, particularly surveys of the Western Bumble Bee. Montana State University faculty Drs. Laura Burkle and Casey Delphia provided a seminar and training for CSKT and SKC students and staff. Montana bumble bee expert Amelia Dolan is helping us identify bumble bees from photos. The SKC projects have been supported by funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) Tribal College and University Programs Small Grant for Research, NSF Research Experience for Undergraduates Sustainable Land and Water Resources, an EPA EcoAmbassador grant, and a grant from the Montana Space Grant Consortium.
What are some of the tools, knowledge, or other resources that would benefit your research on huckleberry, or the development of the pollinator plan for the reservation? In other words, as we develop more of a national infrastructure for native bee monitoring, what are some of the components that you’d like to see?
I would like to see the development of and increased access to non-lethal methods of bumble bee identification. Non-lethal methods are especially valuable with the growing concerns about bumble bee declines. We are currently using photographs for identification of captured bumble bees but are aware that results should be viewed with caution. I am interested in learning more about the availability of labs that could identify bumble bees to species using genetic material. I would like to have more knowledge about where bumble bees are nesting, how far they are traveling from their nests, and which flowering species they are visiting. I hope that researchers will continue to create smaller transmitters or other technologies for tracking individuals of small animals such as bumble bees.
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.