Bee activity has spiked this month out at Jerry Smith Park. Our collection protocol brought in twice as many individuals compared to April and May combined! I’m also seeing bees I haven’t seen before; notably, Svastra, a striking bee with very furry legs. (That “fur” by the way is what biologists call “scopa;” specialized hairs for carrying pollen.)
Last week, Matt Kelly of the Bee Report came through Kansas City. Matt is a photojournalist who covers all aspects of bee conservation, from biology and natural history to politics and economics. He was accompanied by Suzanne Hunt, president of Hunt Green LLC, an organization dedicated to helping businesses transition to more efficient clean energy models. Matt and Suzanne’s home base is in the Finger Lakes region at their family farm, Hunt Country Vineyards, which you must check out if you like excellent wine that is also sustainably grown.
Suzanne and I have a special history. In spring 2000, she was a student on the Duke-OTS Undergraduate Semester Abroad Program, at a time when I was running the field-based experience in Costa Rica. Afterwards, we kept in touch and over the years, we’ve become very good friends. It was an extraordinary moment of serendipity when I learned, as I was setting up my first bee projects for this summer, that Suzanne’s fiancé Matt also has a passion for bees. In short order we got out our calendars and found a week when we could explore the remnant and restored prairies of Kansas and Missouri together.
As is customary for like-minded biologists, a lot of folks joined the party! Larry Rizzo, retired biologist with the Missouri Department of Conservation, Linda Lehrbaum, Program Manager for Kansas City Wildlands, Tom Schroeder, also a photographer and master naturalist, and Matthew Garrett, Biologist with Johnson County Parks and Recreation, all accompanied us at some point during the tour.
In addition to Jerry Smith Park, where I’m conducting my own bee research, we visited restoration sites at Rocky Point Glade in Swope Park on the Missouri side and Ogg Prairie in Shawnee Mission Park on the Kansas side of the greater metropolitan area. Our tour of prairie remnants and restoration areas finished with a day trip to Prairie State Park, about two hours south of Kansas City. There, we were treated to sightings of the at-risk regal fritillary butterfly as well as a small herd of the iconic American bison.
Today I was reflecting on the irony that, having spent the early part of my career in the pristine tropical rainforests of the Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica, I am now dedicating my midlife reboot to restored and fragmented ecosystems like the tall grass prairie.
This hasn’t been a sudden transition. I was introduced to fragmentation biology and restoration ecology during the years that I worked at Las Cruces Biological Station in Costa Rica, first as a research mentor and then as coordinator for the Native American and Pacific Islander Research Experience (NAPIRE) Program. During that period, I still clung to deep forest work, but fragmentation and restoration became part of my daily vocabulary. It wouldn’t be long before those terms would be joined by yet another new and growing field that I am now making my own: urban ecology.
Not a sudden transition, but a dramatic one nonetheless. Representative of the divide crossed by my generation, from a time when ecology meant diving away from humans and into the furthest reaches of untouched wilderness, to this present reality where we deliberately seek to reconstruct fragments of wilderness around our built environments. I’m not sure whether this transition is good, bad, or ugly, but it’s the truth we now live with – a truth I feel compelled to address through my research.
It was inspiring to see the prairie habitats that have been restored and maintained in recent years by many hard working professionals and volunteers in the greater Kansas City area. But on Saturday when we drove south to hike through the modest expanse of prairie that blankets a handful of broad hills in Prairie State Park, we experienced a poignant reminder of everything we lost during the European conquest of the Great Plains.
Will we ever recapture the essence of the vast and wild grasslands that were once the hallmark of the North American continent? As I learn about the growth in public interest and the work that’s being done here in restoration and conservation in the Midwest, I believe we just might – but it will take a while.
One bee at a time, I like to say.
One bee at a time.