Signs of Spring

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Bombus terrestris, by Alvesgaspar (Own work), Wikimedia Commons

Friends in the northeast are getting pummeled by one deep freeze after another, but here in the Midwest, spring has made its presence felt. The sun shines bright over warm and breezy days. Daffodils are pushing up through the dirt. Birds defend their territories and build nests, and the grass looks greener every time I glance at it.

This turn of the seasons is mirrored by another, more personal change. I feel altered inside, emotionally, spiritually, and intellectually; I’m undergoing a sense of deep cleansing, as if dry brush were being whisked away and the ground cleared for something new. The time to turn the earth, plant seeds, water, and cultivate has arrived.

This is true in my research as in everything else. For my lab, this spring marks the culmination of a 2-3 year process of tearing down and rebuilding my research agenda. It’s been a daunting process, to say the least.

For decades, my life as an ecologist has been centered on the tropics, primarily Costa Rica, where field work and other obligations kept me active and happy for decades. Then in 2015, things started to change. A seismic shift in my personal life led to a thorough re-examination of everything else I was doing, my work as a field biologist included.

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Agapostemon angelicus by USGS Native Bee Inventory and Monitoring Laboratory, Wikimedia Commons

In principle, nothing kept me from continuing field work in Costa Rica. But the fact I was no longer obligated to go there for other reasons meant I could consider avenues previously less accessible to me.

So consider them, I did. The result? Like so much else in life, I’ve decided to bring my science back home, to the Great Plains.

After two-years of reflection, exploration, reading, and a little retraining, I’m starting a new research program looking at wild bee species associated with prairie habitats. What’s more, I’m doing this at a field site that may not sound exotic but nonetheless offers exciting opportunities: my home town of Kansas City.

 

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Hylaeus nigritus, by Fritz Geller-Grimm (Own work), Wikimedia Common

Why Kansas City? Well, for one – as in many parts of the U.S. – the wild bee populations of the greater Kansas City area have not been well monitored and are probably in decline. The Kansas City area, with a number of prairie remnants and restoration sites connected by public greenways and power line transects, provides plenty of potential bee habitats, including nesting grounds and food resources, such as wild flowers.

 

In the summer of 2016, I had the opportunity to work briefly with Mike Ardhuser, who did a preliminary survey of prairie remnants and restoration areas in Kansas City. Sampling just four sites over the course of the summer, Ardhuser found 89 wild bee species, including one species new to Missouri! I’m hoping to build on his work by establishing long-term monitoring and more in-depth studies of specific species at the sites Ardhuser sampled, some of which are located just minutes away from Avila’s campus.

The new project has me a little nervous, but also excited. Two great Avila students will be working with me, and we’ll have the help and support of the Missouri Department of Conservation, KC Parks, and Kansas City Wildlands. It’s been humbling, really, to see so people have come together around this project. I can’t help but interpret that as a good sign, and I look forward to the journey we’re going to have together.

I also look forward to hearing all the stories our bees have to tell.

 

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Everybody has to start somewhere: My first bee box in Kansas City. These specimens were collected by Avila alumna Dusti Travis in 2015.

 

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