Monthly Archives: July 2019

Flat Tires and Bounding Badgers

Team building 101

This past week I stayed on the Zumwalt with Scott and Kaylee to work on soil sampling.  And let me just say, we had quite a roller coaster ride. We left La Grande around 9AM on Tuesday and arrived at Summer Camp sometime before noon. We stopped at camp to unload all of our gear before heading out to the field sites, and it was then that I noticed we had a flat of all flats.  We, mostly Scott, then worked on putting the spare on during the heat of the day. After we got the Suburban back in working order we all agreed it would be best to drive back to Enterprise and get the old tire patched up. The Zumwalt is comprised of dirt roads for miles and is full of notoriously bad pot holes, jagged rocks, and rivets.  In addition, we frequently traverse the Salt Road, which is more of a riveted trail than a road that’s only driven during the field season. As such, we decided we didn’t want to get an additional flat tire deeper into the preserve. So, we drove to the closest Les Schwabb and Scott called Dr. DeBano. She then decided we should get all new tires and an alignment. We then walked around bustling Enterprise, and stopped at a local restaurant while we waited for the mechanics to finish.  

Sunset from Monument

When we finally got back to the prairie we decided to get at least one site completed.  Somebody way up above must have felt our frustration because we then got to see one of the most glorious sunsets I’ve seen (and I’m a Florida native).  A large storm began rolling in, and I’m sure we all thought the universe was going to continue its gruel joke and rain on us. But instead, the storm broke apart and then the entire Zumwalt was bathed in warm orange light while sunbeams showered the hills.  The dark blue clouds contrasted with the warm grass. Eventually, the orange sky turned purple and magenta on the horizon and eventually a cool blue overtook the prairie. The Seven Devil Mountains then emerged from a storm and the bright rock contrasted perfectly against the dark storm clouds. All the while we were working next to a Graze site, so I got to admire the most picturesque cattle.  After we completed the sampling we decided to go up to Monument to get a better view. Monument are two large man made cairns. TNC speculates that they were made by ranchers generations ago as a directional marker. As such, you can see Monument from most of the prairie, and vice versa. Later that night we all sat outside to star gaze.  The cross in the Milky Way was visible, and it was nice to watch for shooting stars. While cliche, feeling so small is always grounding.  

Cow calf pair near Monument.
Kaylee tampering with the Penetrometer while Scott counts the strikes and I record the data.

The next day we got up early and hit the ground running around 7:30 AM.  Our goal was to complete soil sampling at about 20 sites for the week. The only tools we took out were a HydroSense II and a Penetrometer.  The HydroSense II looks more like a stud finder with two metal prongs attached. You stick it into the ground and it then reads back the VMC, volumetric water content percentage, and conduction. The Penetrometer is a large metal pole with a 5-10lb weight that you slam into the ground.  The bottom on the pole has 4 markings on it that indicate 5cm increments. You drop the weight and count how many times it takes to go 5 cms, culminating in a 20cm reading. The point of the task is to record how compact the soil is, so the most strikes it takes the more compact the soil. Our guide tool for the HydroSense II broke at the first site, so we all agreed that Scott would be in charge of the readings for the remaining sites.  Since the reader is an extremely expensive piece of equipment we didn’t want to be responsible for its downfall. As such to break up the task Kaylee and I took turns between tampering the soil and being a scribe. Of course, I ended up getting my finger caught between the metal and sliced my finger open. After a few explicitis were yelled I got bandged up and went back to work. 

Bumble bee enjoying vetch near Duckett Barn.

The data collected will be used to compare soil characteristics between sites.  For instance, it seemed like the old fields were rockier and more compact than native fields.  It is speculated that this is because these fields were once cultivated and have had no restoration efforts.  Scott said that he thinks those sites haven’t been plowed since the 1950s, which makes it’s impressive that the soil is still so compact after 70 years.  Prairies and deserts are notoriously unforgiving when it comes to soil disturbance, so I wasn’t especially surprised. In parts of Oregon you can still see sheep trails in the hills from decades ago. We also didn’t see much rhyme or reason to the moisture content and conduction though.  For instance, we would get a reading of around 7% and then 13 feet down the transect would get 30%.  We did take all of our readings on the transects that are used for pan traps and frequency data. We made sure to be within a meter of the markers, but not directly on them.  Since people frequent those transects it might create biased data if you take readings directly on the whiskers. 

Butterflies enjoying some rabbitbrush.
Bumble Bee gorging on Palouse thistle.

On our last day we ended up near Duckett Barn.  There is a field of veetch near the barn, and I have never seen so many bumble bees! We stopped for about 10 to 15 minutes and just admired them, and snapped photographs of the charismatic insects. While it was bittersweet to see a nonnative plant creep into the prairie, it was fascinating to watch all the bees. My personal highlight, however, happened on our way out of the preserve.  As we were driving we saw a badger cross the road! I’m pretty sure I started smacking Kaylee and talking gibberish. The badger then crossed the road and started bounding through the next field. We see badger holes all over the Zumwalt, but I have yet to see one in the wild. I was as elated as I was when I saw the wolf. I’m so grateful I get to work with Dr. DeBano on pollinators, but I seem to lose total control when it comes to Mustelids and Sciuridaes.  A career goal of mine is to work with Black Footed Ferrets. But first, I need to perfect my volume control.

Red and black Angus on the Zumwalt.

Despite the flat tire, smashed finger, and sore ankles I feel like we had a very productive week.  Considering the setbacks I’m impressed we still completed 21 sites. We will be going back to the Zumwalt next week to finish our soil work. Dr. DeBano will also be joining us so we might assist with her data as well.  I’m becoming more familiar with the layout of the prairie, and it’s fun to see it transition each trip. The awe of the Zumwalt has yet to warn off of me. I’ve worked a variety of jobs, but I suspect that this internship will feel special for a long while.

Wild Data

Large storm rolling over the Seven Devils and Wallowa Mountains

This past week was spent between Hermiston and my own house in Union.  Dr. DeBano, Katie, and Scott all traveled down to Davis, California for a conference, while James and I stayed at the lab in Hermiston. I worked on pinning more bees until Wednesday as James worked on prepping for the next field week.  I then went home with a binder full of data sheets that need to be checked, and eventually met up with Kaylee, a fellow BES intern, at the library to work on spreadsheets.  

Admittedly, the hardest part about this whole internship is being away from my boyfriend and pets for most of the week.  I previously worked as a FF/EMT for a few years, so while I’m no stranger to being away, I do get home sick.  Additionally, I recently moved to a century farm in Union, and I found out one of my pet chickens passed away while I was last on the Zumwalt.  Since my personal life has felt a little hectic, I was relieved when Dr. DeBano said I could do data entry from home.  I’m happy to say I feel recharged and I’m eager to spend the next two weeks out in the field.

QA/QC for loads of data sheets.

As far as pinning bees goes, I feel like I’ve improved quite a bit.  I still struggle with the extremely small bees, but I’m getting there.  Dr. DeBano checks in with me one on one at least once a week while I’m in Hermiston. This week she and I watched a few tutorial videos (thanks Youtube!) on pinning bees.  I slowed down even more with the little bees and tried to really steady my hands. Hopefully, my shift in technique showed. It’s important to keep the specimens uniform for identification and presentation. Regardless of the destination, you should want your specimens to be museum quality. Plus, if you just glue a wing to the pin it could easily fall off. The whole process actually feels pretty Zen once I get into a rhythm too.  I’ve decided to approach quality control and data sheets with the same mindset as pinning. While the work can get momentous, it is important and once I get situated I can work at it for hours. 

Scott, Kaylee, and I will be going out to the Zumwalt for the next two weeks to work on soil sampling. I know next to nothing about soil, so I’m actually pretty excited to get some hands on experience. It will also be nice to break up the routine of hand netting one week and pinning the next.  When I’m back in the lab in August I hope to get quality photos of some of the most common bees, and some of the pesky flies that look so similar, that I’ve been pinning and create a similar post to the plant identification. 

As promised, here’s a few more common plants found on the Zumwalt Prairie:

Scientific name: Zigadenus venenosus, Family: Liliaceae, common name: death camas
Scientific name: Geum triflorum, Family: Rosacea, common name: old man’s whiskers
Scientific name: Arnica sororia, Family: Asteraceae, common name: twin arnica
Scientific name: Calochortus eurycarpus, Family: Liliaceae, common name: Wing-fruited mariposa lily
Scientific name: Orthocarpus tenuifolius, Family: Scrophulariaceae, common name: Thin-leaved owl’s clover
Scientific name: Potentilla gracilis, Family: Rosaceae, common name: slender cinquefoil
Scientific name: Trifolium pretense, Family: Fabaceae, common name: Red clover

Zumwalt, Forbs, and Crickets

This past week I went back to the Zumwalt to assist with more field work.  I accompanied Katie for her last days of field work, in which we collected more bees with the hand nets.  This week, however, proved to be a little more difficult than the first as much of the prairie had begun to turn brown.  We also faced the challenge of high winds, storms, and grazing cattle at some of the sites.  All these factors resulted in less bees, or at least less than favorable catching conditions. Regardless, it was still nice to be out in the field and take note of how the prairie was transitioning out of late spring to high summer.

The pre-established sites on the Zumwalt range from Old Prairie (cultivated at some point) or Native Prairie, and Graze (cattle approved), Burn, Both, and Control.  During my first week back in June I noticed little difference in the amount of bees present from site to site, but this past week the differences were stark.  For instance, in regards to bees present, I noticed the most difficultly on recently grazed sites.  At first I thought this might be from the recently disturbed soil, but Katie stated that the soil compaction actually seems to have little effect on the ground nesting bees, so perhaps the flowers the bees favor are now absent.  Many of the invasive annual grasses, like ventenata, where also becoming easier to see.

Our last site for the week proved to be the most fruitful though, we collected all the required specimens and then some in less time than it took to collect even a quarter of the amount at prior sites. Since this week was fairly similar to my first week on the prairie, I’ve decided to include a couple examples of the different forbs we frequently see on the Zumwalt. It’s been interesting to see the colors on Zumwalt shift from purple lupin and yellow cinquefoil to mostly white yarrow and pink fairy in such a short amount of time.  I will continue to showcase a few each week, and will keep it simple by including the scientific name, family, common name and photograph. This next week I will be back in Hermiston pinning many more bees and assisting with data sheets.  And, as an added bonus I added two beautiful insects that Jame’s found while hand netting.

Scientific name: Clarkia pulchella, Family: Onagracea, common name: Pinky fairy, Elkhorns clarkia

Scientific name: Lupinus sp. Family: Fabaceae, common name: lupine (Zumwalt has Lupinus caudatus and Lupinus sericeus present)

Scientific name: Geranium viscosissimum, Family: Geraniaceae, common name: Sticky geranium

Scientific name: Achillea millefolium, Family: Asteracea, common name: yarrow

Scientific name: Erigeron speciosus, Family: Asteraceae, common name: showy daisy

Female Mormon cricket

Male Mormon cricket

Starkey and Hermiston

Bumble bee flying through vetch

My second week was split between Starkey and Hermiston.  I spent the first day with Scott in the Starkey Experimental Forest near La Grande.  I joined him to do timed hand netting on dog woods and hawthorns, where we attempted to collect as many bees as possible within 10 to 15 minutes.  Once collected we then approximated how many flowers were on the shrubs we had just trapped bees on.  One of the shrubs had over 1,000 flowers! I also joined Scott to various sites were he was identifying different willows.  Towards the end of the day we went to see if we could collect bumble bees from Engelmann Spruce.  We ended up collecting quite a few bees, which was surprising.  It was neat to see the bees taking advantage of the spruce instead of flowers.  Scott said that the behavior is not well researched, so I was glad to help him collect specimens. I also saw a ton of vetch, wild  rose, thistle, and (what is perhaps my new favorite flower) elephant head lousewort

Elephanthead lousewort at Starkey Experimental Forest.

My first bee pinned!

The rest of my week was spent at the lab in Hermiston.  While there I learned how to pin bees. Once pinned the bees are eventually sent off to Utah to be identified.  Over the course of the week I organized and pinned several pan traps from Starkey.  The pan traps are the multicolored containers that attract all types of bees, butterflies, flies, spiders, etc.. The insects are stored in a freezer until they are ready to be sorted and pinned.  As such, the first step is to dethaw the insects.  This was done by putting the contents of each pan trap into a mason jar with hot water and some Dawn dish soap.  I then shook the jar to loosen up the mess of insects.  After doing that for about five minutes, I rinsed the contents with more water.  I kept a mesh screen over the jar so none of the insects were lost in the human powered spin cycle.  The next step was to dry the insects, which was simply done with a generic blow drier until all the water is evaporated.  Dr. DeBano said that bumble bees, Bombus, can sometimes only be differentiated by their fur color so it’s critical that they’re completely dried when pinned.  If the bees are wet, or still have soap residue on them, the fur can become matted.

Bi catch from a pan trap before examining all specimens under a microscope.

Once I was confident all the insects were dried I placed them into a petri dish and began sorting out all the bi catch.  It was interesting to see the variety of bees and bi catch per site.  For instance, some batches seemed to only have bumble bees and mosquitoes, while others were full of wasp and sweat bees. A lot of sweat bees look similar to flies, so I ended up using the microscope, and Scott and Dr. Debano, to check.

As far as the actual pinning goes, I had to be careful not to place the pin directly through the thorax, as this will pop the specimen’s head off.  Instead, I placed the pin slightly to the right to protect the bee and to create a uniform look. Once the bees are too small to have a pin placed into them I used nail polish as an adhesive to attach the bees to the side of the pin.  Within the box bees are organized from largest to smallest, and arranged with enough space to keep their wings protected.

Various bees post pinning. They will eventually be shipped to Utah to be identified.

All in all, I ended up pinning several hundred bees over the week.  I was previously studying fine arts in school and have done taxidermy as a hobby, so the pinning felt like a nice blend of my interest.  It was also really helpful to get to look at the bi catch and bees under a microscope. Osmia (mason bees) and Halictidae (sweat bees) were absolutely beautiful. The sweat bees looked almost iridescent under the microscope.  It was an enjoyable week, and I was eager to get the opportunity to examine the bees up close.  On my off days, I’ve already noticed myself spotting more bees than before. This upcoming week I will be back on the Zumwalt Prairie for four days of field work.

 

 

First week on the Zumwalt

 

This is the first of many weekly blog posts that I’ve opted to create for the duration of my summer internship with Oregon State University. Since I will assisting on a few different projects I thought the blog would be the best way to showcase the work that’s being done. Despite the nerves, I’m excited to learn and to share some insight into some of the research being conducted at Hermiston Agriculture Research and Extension Center (HAREC). I’m currently perusing my undergraduate degree in Rangeland Sciences, with a minor in Fish and Wildlife, at the OSU La Grande campus.  I just completed my first year back in school and was ecstatic when I found out that I would be assisting Dr. DeBano on various pollinator studies this summer.  The field work will be split between the Zumwalt Prairie, near Enterprise, and the Starkey Experimental Forest, outside of La Grande, and all of the lab work will be completed in Hermiston.

 

My first week was spent on the Zumwalt Prairie.  The Zumwalt Prairie is the largest remaining bunchgrass prairie in North America, and as such provides important habitat for various insects, birds, ungulates, smaller mammals such as ground squirrels and badgers, and more recently wolves.  The Zumwalt sits at about 2,000 to 5,500 feet and is bordered by the Imnaha River and Hells Canyon, with the Wallowa Mountains and Seven Devils to the East.  The prairie was historically used by the Nez Perce, and was then used for various grazing operations.  The Nature Conservancy (TNC)eventually purchased 33,000 acres of the prairie, creating the largest private preserve in Oregon.  Today, TNC works in conjunction with local ranchers to implement sustainable agriculture.  The preserve also attracts hunters, birders, and prairie enthusiasts; as the Zumwalt is a mosaic of wildflowers in the spring and early summer.  The preserve also has several historic buildings, including three that were transported to what is referred to as Summer Camp.  In addition to a large barn, Summer Camp is comprised of the School House, Doctor’s Cabin, and the Bunk House, which are used to house employees and researchers.   There are also pre established sites throughout the prairie that have been used for various research projects ranging from: soil, pollinators, biomass, and invasive species.

On my first day we arrived at Summer Camp around noon, and then quickly set up sleeping arrangements; half chose the Bunk House and the rest camped in the back field.  I choose to camp with my terribly cheap tent because I’m stubborn.  We then got straight to field work.  I was assigned to helping Katie collect live bees; with the goal of collecting 15 bees per site.  We also had to use a sterile net each time to eliminate any chance of cross contamination.  She would then take the DNA from the pollen found on each bee and use the data to see what flowers they had visited. This information could then be used for restoration projects in the future.

Hand netting bees felt almost therapeutic.  Standing out in the wild expanse just listening for a certain buzz, and trying to spy on various bees gorging on the forbs, all while the sun was shinning down on me.  I felt like all the work I’d put in to get to that point was worth it.

That being said, there were still a few hurdles to jump. Foremost, the bees aren’t fond of the cold or the wind, so the shifting weather provided some challenges.  Furthermore, while it’s easy to identify a bumble bee, there are a great deal of smaller bees that look remarkably similar to flies.  Despite the difference in pitch, one of the most obvious differences between the two is that bees have four wings, while flies only have two.  Flies also have halteres, which are occasionally visible to the naked eye, but hard to spot while in the field.  Halteres look like little q-tips near the wings and aid in flight rotation. Needless to say, I wasted quite a few nets by mistakenly scooping up flies.  Thankfully, Katie is patient and forgiving.

 

We collected bees for the majority of the next two days and it was fascinating to see the difference as the time and the weather changed. For instance, in the evening when the temperatures would begin to drop we saw fewer bees, but when we did collect samples they were generally massive bumble bees.  This is in part because the smaller bees don’t tolerate the cold as well as the larger bees.  Furthermore, one of the sites was especially windy, and all of the bees collected were from Arnica sororia.  I wondered if this was due to the flowers disk shape providing shelter from the elements.  As for the other sites, the bees seemed to prefer various types of lupine, Potentilla gracilis, Frasera albicaulis, Geranium viscosissimum, and occasionally Geum triflorum.

 

The second half of my week was spent collecting pan traps and putting nest boxes out near the aspen stands with Scott.  His work is focused on pollinators and shrubs.  While he also collects bees with hand nets, for this trip he was using pan traps of various colors to collect bees in many of the same pre-established sites as Katie and Dr. DeBano.  The pan traps are either white, yellow, or blue containers, filled with a soapy mixture, as pollinators are attracted to these colors.  The containers are left at the sites for 48 hours and then collected.  The pan traps also attract all types of other insects like flies, butterflies, spiders and mosquitoes.  This bi catch is sorted out in the lab and saved for possible later research on biomass.  Scott and I also hiked up to the aspen stand on Findley Butte Thursday afternoon to place nesting boxes for the season.  These boxes will be collected at the end of the summer to see what pollinators are using them.  The nesting boxes were attached to aspens of different age classes to see if there was variation in preference.

 

I had a wonderful first week, and I’m eager to go back to the Zumwalt in mid July.  It was great to test my plant taxonomy, and learn a bunch of additional plants.  I’m pretty novice to any insect identification, let alone behavior, so it was equally enjoyable to see what the bees are up too.  The highlight, however, had to be as we were cresting one of the hills on the Salt Road and saw what I thought was a giant german shepherd, which of course ended up being a wolf!  One of the TNC employees had spotted some wolves near the same area only a few weeks earlier too.

The only real low point was when Scott and I got snowed on Thursday morning at our first site.  The snow turned to rain and wind that didn’t let up until the afternoon.  I felt naive to not bring a wider variety of gear; and it just goes to show how dynamic a landscape can be.  We remarkably both ended up with sunburns by the end of the day, as all the weather had cleared. Despite the soggy feet it was still rewarding to not only get to partake in important work, but to do so in such a remarkable landscape.  I’ve always enjoyed wildflowers and love the way the blowing grass mimics ocean waves on a prairie.  The Zumwalt Prairie feels especially unique to me in that it sits so high up and is encircled by such rugged, unforgiving mountains. I felt like I had my own private super bloom on a prairie island.  It truly is a remarkable landscape, and photographs simply don’t do the scale justice.

This next week I will be spending Tuesday in the Starkey Experimental Forest with Scott, and then in the lab in Hermiston learning how to pin bees and sort through all the bi catch.