Sunrise over Lower Red Rock Lake

Sunrise over Lower Red Rock Lake
Sunrise over Lower Red Rock Lake

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Montana Conservation Corp Meets the Bees

Summer, 2013

Note: I was looking for information in an old blog and found this  sitting around as a draft.  This was my all time favorite summer activity and bees are always on my mind, so I think it is still useful and interesting.  I'm again doing a bee survey for Moosehorn NWR but not pinning the bees. 

When the National Bison Range biologists heard that I love working with Citizen Science Projects and that I'd done a bee survey at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge last year, they decided it would be fun to let the Montana Conservation Corp have a day each week when they would participate in a bee study.

And the refuge is also interested in finding out if their bee populations are in decline. So I got to repeat my favorite job, with an even better twist - I get to find out about the bees we have here and also sell kids on helping to protect them and provide habitat for them. And it this catches their interest, they may be encouraged to become biologists or at least participate in Citizen Science Projects as adults.

So far, I've had three groups of high school age MCC kids, two of them at once. Last week was really hectic with twelve of them plus their leaders to show how to net bees, and also to take them to collect the bees from the bowls I had set out the previous day.

I have to put out the cups the morning before I meet with the MCC.  I now do it around  6:00 A.M. because I usually help with the Talk-to-a Biologist Program on Tuesday mornings.


We find the cups, then pour them through the net

These cup only had three bees- rest are ants or other bugs

We spend most of the morning visiting the refuge and netting bees from wherever we find lots of flowers.  We also take time to just enjoy the tour.


Everyone gets fabulous views along with the fun of capturing bees

Waiting for a bee to climb to the top of the net

Staffer Kelsey coaching on how to get bees from net to kill jar


Waiting to pounce

And along the way I get to tell them interesting things about the flowers or bees we come across. One of the stories that is the biggest hit, even with the Refuge Staff, is the how the lupines make the bees go ONLY to the flowers that still need pollinating and prevent them from revisiting the flowers that have already been pollinated.

The bees can't see red, so the lupines start off with white nectar guides. The bees land on the flower and then walk along the guides to drink the nectar and gather the pollen. After the flower is pollinated, the area turns red, effectively hiding the entry to the pollen and nectar from the bees. So when I show the kids the lupines, they can see that the lower flowers have a red spot, while the higher flowers still have a white spot.


Me telling the lupine story of the red and white dots

Then we come back to the bunkhouse, where I've set up tables, chairs and a projector,  and break for lunch.  After lunch, I show them a short movie on how to pin bees and then we get to work.  We try to sort our bees into groups of like ones, then pin them and put them on a Styrofoam pad. Then I collect the bees and put them into the insect boxes.


We have fun looking at magnified bees

Part of what we have to do is to decide if we have a bee, wasp, or fly.  Flies have only two wings and bee have four wings and at least a few hairs, while wasps have four wings and  are smooth. Our hardest insects are bees that look a lot like wasps.  But if we use a side light and magnification, we can find hairs on them.  And I tell them , "when in doubt, just pin them."

Sometimes we make educated guesses as to the group the bee might belong to

One person's bees
I have to fill in a database that represents where they were collected and how they were killed. Then I'll print out labels and add them to each bee.  Later they will get a second label that tells their genus and species.  That will be done by a bee expert.

The first week, we had a professor come to see the kids and do a little reflecting on how their lives are different from the lives of many of their peers. Since he met us in the field, I sat in, and was very moved at the kids' attitudes and how they feel about doing good rather than striving for material things.


Professor-in chair- leading the reflection

 The second week, the groups sent me a thank-you card.  One of the groups had each youth leave me a personal message.  That was another reward, especially the message from Will. "NOT THE BEES!, Just kidding, it was lots of fun".  When I met the MCC on the first day, and told them they would be helping us find out what kinds and numbers of bees were living on the refuge, he said, "I hate bees".  I told him he needed to change his attitude because bees were responsible for a third of his food.  Later we talked while he was netting  bees and I found out he had been traumatized by a sting as a child. I told him I really respected him for catching bees when he was scared of them. And then he really got into pinning the bees. So he did really change his attitude during that one day.

Thank-You Note

And a BIG thanks to Ally for giving me  a copy of  all the pictures she took of our day.  I am so involved in collecting and processing bees and helping kids get their bees out of their nets and keeping up with the time so I can have them where they need to be,  that I don't get many pictures taken.  But her pictures really tell the story of what the bee survey is all about.

So far, I've only made one really big mistake.  I was trying to save money and only ordered seven nets which I thought would be one for each kid and one for me.  But the leaders also want to net and now we have three weeks of double teams.  So the head biologist let me order more. (He knew how personally how much fun they are because he  caught several bees when Talk-to-a- Biologist Program was on pollinators.)  And now, at least some of the time, I'll get to net bees too.

Postscript: A few weeks after I wrote this blog, I took one of my favorite pictures of all time - again of the MCC kids off to capture bees. On this day we also had a pronghorn antelope that followed us, just off the path, and acting like a little dog, to the top of the High Point Trail. 

The bee survey team being surveyed by bighorn sheep rams