It’s Okay to Pull Back (Or, Confessions of a Would-Be Entomologist)

Cup traps proved very effect for sampling early spring native bees.

Friday, I met my student, Gabrielle, on a frosty spring morning to set up traps for her capstone project. Gabrielle is following up on work begun last year assessing the impact of stem nester refugia on native bee communities in prairie remnants at Jerry Smith Park. Sampling in 2020 hit some roadblocks due to the Covid19 lockdowns. We had hoped to start in March and April, when many stem nesters emerge, but were forced to postpone until June. This spring, Gabrielle and I prepared to get a jump on things.

Two days before we met at Jerry Smith Park, a hard freeze had settled over Kansas City. Bees, according to common wisdom, don’t like cold or windy weather. When we set up the cup traps on Friday, it was still below forty degrees. Wind whipped across the sprouting grass, chilling our fingers and cheeks. The forecast promised a sunny day with temperatures in the fifties by late morning, perhaps the sixties by afternoon. This would have to do. Gabrielle and I needed an early season collection, and March had already slipped by. Between her work schedule and mine, we might not have another opportunity for weeks.

Though I was happy to get out in the field, I didn’t expect much of a catch. Not only was it cold, the prairie was just starting to green over. No wildflowers had emerged from the brown earth, and without flowers, it seemed, there would be very few bees. As I told Gabrielle, a low catch is not a bad catch. Even if we caught just one bee that day, that would still be a result.

That evening, to my surprise, our traps were laden with bees. Where they all came from, what they’d been eating on the prairie I do not know. If I’d tried to hand net on Friday, I would’ve never found them. But they flew to our traps and fell right in. I haven’t counted them yet, but I estimate we pulled in maybe a hundred from the west prairie, reconstructed in 1988, and twice that many from the east prairie, considered an intact remnant. More individuals than I might get in a whole season of baseline hand netting. Most of them were from the genus Osmia, beautiful metallic blue bees that serve as important pollinators across many habitats.

Now the confession: I don’t like killing bees. I love to study them, both in the field and in the lab, but the act of sacrificing insects has always been distasteful. I remember thinking, back when I took my first entomology class, that this was why I would never be a great entomologist. Not because I don’t like insects, not because I don’t understand their structure and classification, but because the dilemma of having to kill my study subject would always haunt me. And true entomologists kill quite a lot – by the tens or hundreds of thousands, over the course of their careers.

Recently burned prairie just beginning to green over. No flowers to be seen.

In my own work, I’ve tried to be careful about balancing the benefits of finding answers to questions against the cost of sacrificing study subjects. I implement noninvasive techniques wherever possible. As a result, my samples are miniscule compared to some published studies, but I think that’s okay. I work under unique circumstances with a different set of criteria. My central goal is not so much to maximize data points as it is to respect the life, however imperfectly, that I’m trying to understand.

So if I’d known our cup traps were going to be so successful on Friday, I might not have put out as many. I’d told Gabrielle we’d probably want to trap at least once more before May, but now I question the wisdom of doing another day of sampling. The prairie remnants we study are small and isolated inside an urban landscape. We have to be mindful of the possibility that killing 300+ native bees in a single day could have unforeseen and unwanted impacts. I’d rather study Friday’s snapshot in careful detail and see what we can learn from the bees we have. Perhaps based on this experience, we can design a better sampling protocol for next spring.

To put the brakes on collecting runs counter to all my training. When I was inducted into ecology, we were told never to say no to more data. Of course, we were also told insects were a “bottomless bucket” of sampling opportunity. With data indicating many insects are in decline across the globe, we know now that is not the case.

I think I am also contemplating this question inside a larger context, an underlying fatigue born of ongoing pandemic life. Even as spring brings renewal and vaccines bring hope, I’m disinclined to take up old yokes or resume past habits. Instead of surging forward, I feel compelled to pull back in certain areas of life, as if an inner voice is saying enough, enough, enough. You have done enough. It’s okay not to constantly reach for something new. Rest now, and engage with what you have. The harvest as it stands is plentiful, and sometimes only within the pause can we find our next path forward.

2 thoughts on “It’s Okay to Pull Back (Or, Confessions of a Would-Be Entomologist)

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  1. Fascinating.
    And yet, as a NON entomologist, I read your last paragraph “…You have done enough. It’s okay not to constantly reach for something new. Rest now, and engage with what you have. The harvest as it stands is plentiful, and sometimes only within the pause can we find our next path forward.” as a writer who has written and written and written with some small success, some larger but now finds herself “between projects”. For the first time, EVER, I don’t have something waiting in the wings, tugging me hard in its direction. (A few tugging, but only half-heartedly.) I think I need to heed your words and engage with what I have. I always fear it will lead to good habits going lax. You know my writing work ethic. I need to sit myself at my desk daily, and at least ponder. But I can and will give myself a break, and let the story/ies come.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s hard, isn’t it? We are so programmed toward constant productivity, and also toward confusing constant activity with productivity. But I generally find when I take a break in one area of life, that opens up new directions elsewhere.

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