Student view:

Sean Griffin: Sweet success

Oct. 31, 2018

Sean Griffin is a graduate student in the Department of Integrative Biology at the W.K. Kellogg Biological Station. Griffin researches wild bee conservation, habitat restoration, animal dispersal and movement under the guidance of Nick Haddad.

Science is often a series of failures that teaches us how to succeed. After a first field season riddled with messes, I’m making a beeline toward my research on pollinators in my second year of field work.

I’m interested in bee colonization of new habitats, a process about which little is known. Going into my first year of field work, I had no idea what to expect from my landscape-scale colonization experiment in South Carolina.

Almost everything that could have gone wrong, did.

I wanted to release native bees into my landscapes – and realized that no one was selling the species I needed.

The non-native early spring nesting species of bees I was able to procure got lost in the mail and emerged from hibernation in a post office, escaping their packaging.

I was still able to release them, but of the 3000 I started with, only a single bee colonized the nest boxes for my experiment.

I decided to release leafcutter bees next – a resilient, affordable and accessible species. I didn’t originally want to release them in the summer because of the heat and limited blooming potential of flowers – and my first round of leafcutter bees all died due to an unusual overnight freeze.

I released another round of leafcutter bees into the experimental landscapes, not knowing if anything would come of my efforts. I decided to step away for a little while.

I thought, “This is not going to work, I need to just clear my mind.” So I went on vacation for a week, came back, and the leafcutters were all over my nest boxes!

I don’t know how that summer would have gone if it hadn’t been for my adviser.

I’m really appreciative of Nick, because I’m a serious pessimist, and Nick is the most optimistic person I’ve ever met. He was pushing me the whole time to just do it, even though it’s a crazy project and no one knows if this kind of thing works on these scales, and it worked! I just had to find the right bee, and do the experiment a few times.

I was pleasantly surprised that I got the data I needed. The mishaps of the South Carolina field season informed all of my choices for my research this summer at KBS.

This field season, I was able to hit the ground running, use the right bee and put them out at the right time.

For the most part, everything this summer has gone right. The bee populations I’ve released at the GLBRC and LTER sites at KBS have survived and are colonizing the nest boxes I set up.

The only thing that hasn’t gone according to plan is my use of a fluorescent dye powder – thankfully, a nonessential part of the experiment. My adviser and I had hoped the bees would step in the powder on their way out of the release boxes, making their dispersal patterns trackable.

The first time checking the nest boxes at night showed that the bees’ fluorescent dye wasn’t as strong of an indicator as they had anticipated. The white backgrounds of the nest boxes made it easier to see the bees during the day, but the bright background’s bouncing off my UV light made it impossible to see much, if any, of the dye on the bees at night. Still, flecks of the powder are visible on the nest boxes, so I’m able to get at least a small amount of data on where bees are coming from.

There will always be bumps in the road, but I’m learning from the obstacles I find on my way.

I’ve had – like any scientist that’s been doing work for a few years – a lot of projects fail. But you always get something out of it – just something different than you’d expected.

I’m able to keep moving forward despite obstacles thanks to encouragement from my adviser and labmates, as well as my passion for bees.

Bees do a huge amount of pollination of crops, up to 90 percent of the world’s plant species. They do a lot from an ecosystem service point of view. But my interest is also in preserving rare bees, which we don’t know much about in comparison to other species like rare butterflies.

Because bees are small and hard to track across wide dispersal areas, it’s difficult to know which bee species are in need of conservation work. Well-studied species of bees like bumblebees have been added to the endangered species list in the past few years, but there are hundreds of bee species in the United States alone that are declining and aren’t being studied.

I see my work as conservation-focused; we don’t want these species to die off. Because we don’t know enough about them at this point, we want to create habitats and practices that will protect as many bees as possible.

My work focuses on issues impacting bees that often go unstudied. Most conservation efforts focus entirely on resources for bees, like picking pollinator-friendly flower mixes, but the more we learn about bee natural history, the more we find that nest sites might actually be more limiting for them.

I’m investigating how flower availability and many other factors affect bee decision-making about where to nest. This summer’s preliminary data seem promising, and for me, conservation is something worth persevering for.

This story was repurposed with permission and originally appeared on the KBS website.