How COVID-19 Has Impacted the OSU Garden Ecology Lab

I asked our group if they would be willing to share how COVID-19 is impacting their science, their studies, and their life. Our collective reflections can be found, below.

Gail Langellotto, Professor and Statewide Master Gardener Coordinator: In early February, I woke up from a dream, sobbing. I had dreamt that my parents were sick in Baltimore, but that domestic air travel had been shut down. I am not an expert in the ecology of infectious disease, but I used to teach infectious disease models to pre-meds. And, there were several things that I saw in reports of this emerging disease that greatly troubled me. Unfortunately, my fears of large scale community spread have come true, and life has changed for us all. Luckily, my parents and sisters continue to be healthy, even though they live in a COVID-19 hotspot.

I teach two face-to-face entomology courses at OSU during the spring term: ENT 311 and ENT/HORT 444/544. I had exactly one week to pivot these classes to fully remote offerings. Instead of real time (and automated) assessment of learning using TopHat, I’m building quizzes and assignments into Canvas, where I am manually grading 210 quizzes and assignments per week. I’ve drastically cut down on course content, in part because I continue to try and focus on essential messaging, but also because I know that many of my students are under immense stress.

Spring term is when I normally move to having a lighter touch with the Master Gardener Program. New Master Gardener students are completing their coursework and exams. Long-time Master Gardeners move their attention to plant sales, garden fairs, and educational outreach. Not this year. Training classes had to move online or to Zoom. Plant sales, garden fairs, and other Master Gardener events were cancelled. Our working group started trading resources and ideas via weekly Zoom meetings. Each new dictate from the Governor or the University requires attention and consideration of how it applies to the Master Gardener Program. It’s been a challenge to stay on top of everything, and a challenge to keep a positive attitude.

In terms of science, there has been good and bad. The ‘bad’ is that, as an Associate Editor of the journal Urban Ecosystems, it has been difficult to find peer reviewers for scientific manuscripts. And, it feels ‘out of touch’ to prod folks to get their reviews in, when they may be sick, or they may be busy home-schooling kids or shopping for senior family members. Also in the ‘bad’, I generally have zero time or energy to work on my own scientific manuscripts. Exhaustion is a constant. The ‘good’ is that I can’t sleep at night. And, during these sleepless nights, I often think about next steps in our research, and plotting out key questions in urban ecology that remain unresolved, but could be addressed in garden systems.

Gail’s workstation at home. The photo of the bear and fish (to the right) is named ‘A meditation on perspective’. When working, I often stop to tell myself ‘be the bear, not the fish’.

Angelee Calder, senior year June 2020, Agricultural Science undergraduate: Covid has greatly impacted my plans and life!  As some of you may remember from my last blog post, I was expecting to spend my final term as a senior at Oregon State University doing an internship in Costa Rica! Twelve days before I was scheduled to leave, we entered a worldwide pandemic and all my plans where flipped and turned upside down! In preparation to leave for Costa Rica, I had put in my 30 day notice in on my apartment and my roommate found somewhere else to live. Last minute, I had to scramble to get my refunds, register for classes, and find somewhere to live. Since then, I have been struggling with homelessness.

Currently, I am living in the emergency housing at OSU provided by the Human Resources and Services Center. While I am extremely thankful to be here, I am only permitted to stay for less than a month. Which means my struggle with homelessness during my final term of school will continue to be an issue well into finals week. I started my first term at OSU homeless and I am finishing my final term homeless! While this is stressful and uncertain, I have managed to continue to kill this term academically. I am proud of myself for prevailing during these hard times to thrive under these heavy pressures and keep my eyes on the prize of my diploma that I have worked 5 long years to earn.

My passion for agriculture and my dedication to school go unwavered. This time has helped me to feel more secure in my chosen field as Agriculture than I ever have before. After seeing the bare shelves at the store and hundreds of thousands of Americans get laid off of their jobs, I realize agriculture is about as “essential” as you can get! My passions and education can not only create stable work for myself but also can help the rest of the world through these difficult times with stable sustainable food production.

Angelee’s workstation at the OSU Human Services Resource Center.

Mericos Rhodes, M.A. Student in Environmental Arts and Humanities. As a practitioner of ecological agriculture, this COVID era is one of the most interesting times of my life. Put simply, I have never witnessed such intense interest in what is, to me, the most interesting topic in the world: local ecological farming.

The farm that I help run, Spoon Full Farm, has completely sold out of CSA memberships and many other items. Our waitlist is growing. Here in Corvallis, the farmers markets are well-adjusted and well-attended. I can understand why: a shorter food chain means far fewer opportunities for food to be contaminated. Healthy nutrient-dense food is a cornerstone of resilient health. Small businesses such as local farms need our support now, more than ever.

In an exciting development, a friend and I are busy converting an old grassy field, across from the Corvallis Fairgrounds, into a small-scale community-based farm. We connected with the landowner after he put up a sign at the co-op seeking farmers! So, our restorative farming project has begun! It doesn’t look like much, but we have 7 chickens moving rapidly through the grass between our dug rows of mixed perennials (mostly currant bushes and thyme), fertilizing the ground to support annual vegetable beds. We plan to dig a little pond and use a heavy mulch of leaves and/or wood chips.

The Corvallis field that Mericos and his partner are converting into a farm.

How is this relevant to the garden ecology lab? In two ways:
First, I am planning my graduate project to be a narrative introduction to ecological farming (stories, characters, motives will be highlighted). This personal experience will be part of the story. Second, this project will put into place many practices suggested by Gail’s Insect Agroecology class (ENT 544), which I am currently taking, including creating diverse perennial habitat for insects, and not spraying pesticides or synthetic nitrogen. It will also be an experiment in “Dry-Farming,” which basically means zero irrigation – perhaps a critical farming technique here in the Northwest, where irrigation water may be in much shorter supply, in the decades to come.

I feel extremely grateful to be able to work outside, with living nature, during these times when so many are stuck in screen world, all day every day.

Aaron Anderson, PhD Candidate: During this uncertain time, I feel lucky to be able to be part of the Garden Ecology Lab and be able to continue my classes and work. As I am in my fourth year as a graduate student here at OSU, I have already collected all of my field data. This means that I am able to hunker down at my desk here at home, without having to worry about the logistics of conducting fieldwork during a pandemic. I’ve been busy taking two courses, and also plugging away on some data entry and statistical work.

Things can be undeniably stressful due to the background worries about COVID-19, but working from home has had some plus sides. The first is the ability to work with a cuddly cat on my lap. I’ve also been able to take breaks out in the yard, where we’ve been working on our garden bed and also seeded the side yard with several native plants from my study. We have Phacelia heterophyla just starting to germinate, and Clarkia amoena and Achillea millefolium are both beginning to bolt. Hopefully, some native bees will be visiting soon!

Aaron’s cat.
Aaron’s side garden.

Signe Danler, Instructor, online Master Gardener training course: As an instructor of an online course, most of my work was already done online via computer before the pandemic hit. I have also worked from home for many years in a variety of jobs, so I already had a full office set up at home, and did much of my OSU work at home already. In this regard, there was not much change – I grabbed a few things from my office at OSU so I would have them at home, and have not been on the campus since the stay-at-home order.

Nevertheless, life suddenly became much more stressful. For the first few weeks, the constant bombardment of new and conflicting information was terribly distracting, making it hard to be productive on any project requiring sustained effort. The cancellation of virtually all events I normally participate in has been saddening and frustrating. With two vulnerable family members at home, we have to exercise great caution in outside contacts. I not only have to do all grocery shopping, but do it in a way that takes much longer than usual, and is tiring and stressful. I’m keeping trips out very infrequent!

All in all, though, I feel we are very fortunate, since we are in a position to ride this situation out with minimal problems. To stay healthy and sane I’ve been taking more walks, which is easy since we live at the edge of town and crowds are non-existent. My large garden is getting more attention than usual, and I’m propagating more of my own plants to reduce nursery visits. As I have adjusted to the new normal, my ability to focus is getting back to normal too, and I am confident we’ll get through it just fine. 

Signe’s Plant starts.

Mykl Nelson, Instructor of Urban Agriculture: The first thing I noticed was how much remained the same. I was already fully remote and integrated with eCampus. I was lucky. I watched the flurry of emails, the hectic conference meetings, the string of popular articles. Everyone seemed to scramble as essentially the entire academic world pushed to move fully online and remote. I’m excited to see this push because I hope to see advancement in the teaching of remote teachers. When I first started trying to educate myself about educating others in agricultural topics in a remote classroom, I saw very little supporting material. I hope that changes now.

I’ve seen real changes in the community around me. Store shelves lay bare as a slow realization—the façade of abundance—spreads across stores. I know from my time as a grocery clerk that those shelves aren’t stocked that deep, and the “back stock” is kept as thin as possible. I’m watching my country get squeezed around me; the most vulnerable of my fellow citizens being forced to confront the more dire aspects of this pandemic. 

But in this panic, I feel safe. I get to add yet another scenario to the privileged category of my life. From my youth in a military family to my time now as university faculty, I am repeatedly shown the benefits of access to health care. When it comes to basic hygiene and global health, I want everyone to be able to wash their hands just as easily as they could access medicine. It only makes sense to extend such secure foundations to as many people as possible.

Mykl’s workstation in Central Oregon.

Happy 50th Anniversary of Earth Day

Today is the 50th anniversary of earth day. I am almost as old as earth day (I will turn 50, next February), and am finding myself in a reflective mood.

Ever since I was a child, I have been fascinated by and loved nature. I used to try and catch lightning bugs, and put them in a mason jar, hoping to catch so many that I could make a lantern. Today, when I visit my folks near my childhood home, nary a lightning bug can be found. Scientists suspect that increased landscape development has removed the open field habitats and forests that the lightning bugs depend upon to display their mating signals and to live. Light pollution likely also plays a role.

lightning bug 8758
Eastern Lightning Bug. Photo Credit: Terry Priest. https://www.flickr.com/photos/artfarmer/197649535

My time in college was my first real exposure to nature. I worked at Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, supporting the work of James Wagner when he was a graduate student at UMBC. He was studying wolf spiders, and I fell in love with these amazing creatures. Did you know that wolf spider mommas carry their young on their back ~ at least for the first few days of a baby spider’s life? Did you know that to collect wolf spiders, you go out at night with a flashlight . . . shining the flashlight into the forest floor litter, to find eight tiny glowing eyes staring back at you? Wolf spider eyes glow, as an adaptation to capture more light (enabling them to see better) when hunting at night. Like a cat’s eye, wolf spiders have a tapetum at the back of their eye . . . a mirror that re-reflects light back out, and lets the spider’s eyes have a second shot at capturing that light. My time working with James was magical. For the first time in my life, I gained the skills to identify trees, and wildflowers, and birds, and insects. I tell people that it was as if a scrim had been lifted from my eyes, and I saw the world in an entirely different light. I was forever changed, by this newfound knowledge that allowed me to ‘read’ the natural world in a different way.

Behind the rusty eyes
A wolf spider. Photo Credit: Jean and Fred. https://www.flickr.com/photos/jean_hort/4430861610

As a graduate student, I studied salt marsh insects on the New Jersey coastline. I had never been to a salt marsh before, despite living within an hour of the ribbon of salt marsh that hugs the eastern seaboard. I saw horseshoe crabs for the very first time. I saw the fishing spiders in the genus Dolomedes that I had read about in books. I went bird watching and butterfly hunting with scientists who were generous with their time and knowledge, most notably, my advisor, Robert Denno. Now, so much of that ribbon of coastline has been destroyed. What remains is at risk due to increased nutrient pollution from fertlizers and run-off.

Big cordgrass salt marsh
Tall grass in an eastern salt marsh. Photo Credit: Ecological Society of America. https://www.flickr.com/photos/ecologicalsocietyofamerica/25086412492

My post-doctoral work was spent in California on many projects, including studying the food webs of cotton fields that were using organic or conventional production practices. From talking to the farmers and stakeholders, I learned that there are not insurmountable impediments to growing organic cotton. The problem was that there was a limited market for organic cotton, grown in the United States. Growers who would plant organic cotton faced an uncertain market and reduced yields. Often, reduced yields might be compensated for with a premium price for organic products. But not in the case of US-grown organic cotton. This is when I first started to realize that science can not work in a silo, but that an understanding of economics and the social sciences is critical to promoting more sustainable solutions.

My first faculty position was at Fordham University in the Bronx. I had no idea what I would study, as an entomologist in the Bronx. Luckily, I had the great fortune of taking on Kevin Matteson as my first graduate student. Kevin had been studying the birds of New York City community gardens. I asked him if he might be willing to instead study insects. His work was ground-breaking and is heavily cited, showing the potential of small garden fragments in one of the most heavily populated cities in the world, to support a diverse and abundant assemblage of insects. He also showed that the strongest predictor of butterfly and bee diversity in gardens was floral cover. Through Kevin’s work, as well as associated work by Evelyn Fetridge, Peter Werrell, and others in our Fordham lab group, I became convinced that the decisions that we make in home and community gardens have the potential to make a real and positive difference in this world.

I came to OSU in 2007, for the opportunity to work with about 30 faculty and staff and between 3,000-4,000 volunteers who were dedicated to sustainable gardening. Coming from a teaching and research position to an Extension position was initially a challenge for me. I recognized importance of bringing good science to Extension and outreach work, but I didn’t know exactly how I would or could contribute. In 2016, I started the Garden Ecology Lab at OSU, mostly because I was more convinced than ever, that having good science to guide garden design and management decisions can truly make a positive difference in this world. I sometimes talk about ‘how gardening will save the world’, which is a lofty and aspirational goal. But, I truly believe (and science backs up this belief), that the decisions that we make on the small parcels of land that we might have access to in a community or home garden matter. These design and management decisions can either improve our environment (by provisioning habitat for pollinators and other wildlife) or harm our environment (by contributing to nutrient runoff in our waterways, or by wasting water when irrigation systems fall on the sidewalk more than on our plants).

This is one reason that I stand in awe of the Master Gardener Program. When I was purely a researcher, rarely interacting with the public, I doubt that many people were able to take our research findings and apply them in their own yard. When I was initially struggling with my new Extension position, I went to my former Department Head at the University of Maryland entomology deparment, Mike Raupp. Mike had a lot of experience with Extension and outreach, in addition to being a world-reknown researcher and a super-nice person. I remember him saying ‘Gail, when you publish a research paper, you’re lucky if 20 eggheads will read it. When you talk to the Master Gardeners, you have the opportunity to make real change in this world.’

And together with the Master Gardeners, I hope that is what we have done. I hope that is what we will continue to do. I hope that we find new and novel ways to discover how folks can manage pests without pesticides, to reduce water use in the home garden, and to build pollinator- and bird-friendly habitat. And then I hope that we will reach and teach our neigbhors and friends how to appreciate the biodiversity in their own back yard, and the small changes that they can make to improve the garden environment that they tend. I hope that we can instill a wonder for the natural world in the next generations, and to preserve or improve the natural world, so that our kids, and grandkids, and subsequent generations can hunt for lightning bugs, or spiders, or butterflies.

And I want to do it with you, dear gardeners. Together, we truly can make a difference.

Does Repeated, Lethal Sampling Contribute to Insect Declines?

Over the past few months, I have shared data on bees and other insects that we have collected from Portland-area gardens. For every garden insect we study (except for butterflies, which can be identified to species by sight), we use lethal collection methods. This is because most insects can only be identified to species after close examination under the microscope. In fact, some insects require dissection before we can get them to species.

Bombus sitkensis male, with abdomen dissected, in order to make a species-level identification.

It seems odd that we kill bees in order to help understand how we can build gardens that can help to conserve bees. By collecting and killing bees and other insects, what role were we playing in promoting insect decline? How do projects, such as our own as well as the Oregon Bee Atlas, factor into bee declines?

That’s an excellent question, and one that we often ask ourselves. When we collect bees, we work to make sure that we are not needlessly causing harm. For example, our pan traps are good for collecting small bees, but are not good at collecting larger bees, including reproductive queens. When we hand-collect bees, we avoid taking queen bees. In fact, of the 2,716 bees that we collected in 2017-2019, only three were queens. We limited our sampling frequency to three times per year, and limited our sampling effort to 10 minutes of hand-collecting time and six pan traps, per garden. Even with these precautions, we are still faced with the question: does our research, or the research of others who collect and kill insects, harm the very species we are trying to conserve?

Water pan traps, used to collect garden bees and other small, flying insects. Insects are attracted to the color. When they land in the soapy water, they break the surface tension, drown, and die.

To address this question, I turn to the scientific literature. Gezon and colleagues set up an experiment to see whether lethal sampling for bees using pan traps and netting (the same methods we use in our research) has negative effects on bee abundance or bee diversity. For five years, they sampled nine sites every two weeks during the flowering season. They compared bee abundance and bee diversity in these repeatedly-sampled sites, to metrics from 17 comparable sites that were only sampled once. They found no significant difference in bee capture rate, bee species richness, or bee abundance between sites that were sampled repeatedly versus those that were sampled once. When they partitioned bees according to nesting habit (e.g. cavity, soil, wood, etc.), social structure (e.g. eusocial or not), and body size (e.g. small, medium, and large bees) they also found no significant differences in bee capture rates of single-sample versus repeat-sampled sites. They did catch more pollen specialists in repeated-sample sites than in single sample sites. However, the magnitude of the effect was relatively small, and did not represent a large change in catch rate between single-sample versus repeat-sampled sites. I suspect that the authors caught more pollen specialists at their repeat-sampled sites, because pollen specialists are fairly rare in time and in space. They drastically increased their odds of intercepting a pollen specialist on their repeatedly-sampled sites.

Gezon and colleagues suggest a few hypotheses that could explain why increased sampling effort had no significant effect on bee abundance or diversity. First, they suggest that reducing bee populations by sampling could benefit the bees that remain, by reducing competition for limited resources. If this is the case, bee populations can compensate for some losses due to sampling, by increasing reproduction in the bees that remain behind. Second, they note that if bees were sampled after they have mated and laid eggs, the overall impact of removing a bee from via sampling will be fairly small. Finally, they note that most bees are solitary, and that most solitary bees have short flight seasons. In this case, sampling every two weeks may not result in bee declines, if researchers are effectively collecting a new species during each sampling event.

I can breathe a bit easier. The data suggests that our research is not immediately responsible for documented bee declines. Still, I know that I can personally do more to help protect bees in my own garden. Even though our lab group studies native plants, I have not yet planted Aster subspicatus (Douglas’ Aster) in my own garden. This will be my mission for 2020: to find and plant this gorgeous perennial at home. In 2018 and 2019, it bloomed from mid June through mid November at our study plots in Aurora, OR, with peak bloom (75% or more of the plant in bloom) lasting one month! And, from 2017-2019, it was always a top five plant for native bee abundance. I give this Pacific Northwest native plant my highest recommendation for home gardens! There are plants that attract more native bees, such as Phacelia heterophylla. But, no other plant that we studied offers the triple threat of beauty, bees, and longevity.

Douglas’ aster (Aster subspicatus) is currently my favorite garden plant for bees.

A Primer on Parasitoids

You know about butterflies, about bees, beetles, and ladybugs, all of our favorite garden critters – but do you know about the parasitic wasp? Alias: The Parasitoid. Not quite a parasite and not quite a predator, they are the zombie-creating hymenopterans that make your garden their home and hunting ground. Unlike a true parasite, the parasitoid will eventually kill its host, but unlike a true predator, there is a gap between parasitism and host death. The Parasitoid is truly one of a kind, but with thousands of species in over 40 families, there are many of that kind. They prey by laying their eggs in or on the bodies and eggs of other arthropods, growing, aging, and getting stronger as their unknowing host provides their executioner food and shelter until the parasitoid is ready to attack. 

A Trissolcus japonicus parasitoid wasp lays eggs inside brown marmorated stink bug eggs at the USDA-APHIS Quarantine Facility in Corvallis, Oregon. Photo courtesy of Christopher Hedstrom
Parasitoid laying eggs in stink bug eggs. Photo Courtesy of Christopher Hedstrom

 As menacing as their way of life may seem, parasitic wasps are actually one of the most effective biological pest control agents available to home gardeners, and can be an excellent indicator of habitat health for ecologists. As biocontrol agents, parasitoids can effectively manage a very wide variety of pests from aphids and sawflies to weevils and mites, along with many more. They occur naturally if their hosts/prey and habitable conditions are present and it costs little to nothing to maintain their populations. If pest outbreaks are not completely out of control and the site is habitable, parasitoids can safely, easily, cost-effectively, and naturally bring pest populations below economic injury thresholds. Know any pesticides that check all those boxes? In terms of habitat health, parasitoids can drive biodiversity and positively influence ecosystem functions. As such, their diversity and abundance can act as an indicator for the overall health and functionality of an ecosystem – such as your home garden. 

Is it starting to seem like parasitic wasps could be an area of research for say. . .a garden

A Parasitoid collected from a Portland Garden in 2017 during the Garden Pollinator study

ecology lab? Certainly seems like that to me. That’s why this upcoming year I will be taking on an undergraduate research project to assess the parasitoid populations present in the Portland home gardens Gail and I have collected bees from for the last 3 years. Thanks to our sampling methods, we already have lots of parasitoid data to perform this analysis with, so there won’t be any more soapy bowls in your gardens this summer. This is the first of hopefully many blog posts that will accompany this research, so stay tuned as the year progresses to learn more about your new flying friends!

Further Reading and References: 

https://www.cell.com/trends/ecology-evolution/comments/S0169-5347(06)00152-2

http://publications.gc.ca/collections/collection_2015/aac-aafc/A59-23-2015-eng.pdf

http://ipm.ucanr.edu/PMG/PESTNOTES/pn74140.html

Video showing some parasitoid activity:

Setting up a native-nativar plant study

Natives vs Nativars Recent studies report an increase in consumer demand for native plants, largely due to their benefits to bees and other pollinators. This interest has provided the nursery industry with an interesting labelling opportunity. If you walk into a large garden center, you find many plant pots labelled as “native” or “pollinator friendly”. Some of these plants include cultivated varieties of wild native plant species, called “nativars”. While many studies confirm the value of native plants to pollinators, we do not yet understand if nativars provide the same resources to their visitors.

Echinacea purpurea

Photo Source: Moxfyre – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

E. purpurea ‘Maxima’

Photo Source: Ulf Eliasson – Own work, CC BY 2.5,

E. purpurea ‘Secret Passion’

Photo source: National Guarden Bureau

An Echinacea Example Above are three purple cone flower (Echinacea purpurea) plants: on the top is the wild type, in the middle is a nativar ‘Maxima’, and on the bottom is another nativar ‘Secret Passion’. In some cases, like ‘Secret Passion’s double flower, there is an obvious difference between a nativar and a wild type that might make it less attractive to insect visitors. Since we can’t see the disc flowers (the tiny flowers in the center of daisy family plants), we might assume that ‘Secret Passion’ may be more difficult for pollinators to visit. The floral traits displayed by ‘Maxima’ seem similar to the wild type, but it might produce less pollen or nectar, causing bees to pass over it.

Unless we actually observe pollinator visitation and measure floral traits and nectar, we can’t assume that natives and nativars are equal in their value to pollinators.

Nativar Research One study looking at the difference between native species and their nativar counterparts has come out of the University of Vermont (my alma mater!). A citizen science effort started by the Chicago Botanic Garden is also currently ongoing. My Master’s thesis will be the first to use a sample of plants specific to the Pacific Northwest. We have selected 8 plants that are native to Oregon’s Willamette Valley and had 1-2 nativars available. These plants have shown a range of attractiveness to pollinators (low, medium, or high) based on Aaron’s research. We are including plants with low attractiveness because it’s possible that a nativar may have a characteristic that makes it more attractive, such as a larger flower or higher nectar content.

This example of a Randomized Complete Block design shows 2 garden beds containing a native species (California Poppy and Camas) and their nativar pairs (a yellow poppy nativar and a white Camas nativar).

Experimental Design We have four garden beds in our study, and each bed contains at least one planting of each native species and their nativar counterpart(s). This kind of design is called a “Randomized Complete Block” (RCB). The RCB has two main components: “blocks”, which in our case are garden beds, and “treatments”, which are our different plant species. Above I have drawn a simplified RCB using two of our plants: Camas and California poppy. The bamboo stakes outline each plot and have attached metal tags that label the plants.

We planted our seeds and bulbs in November and will plant out 4″ starts of the other plants in early Spring. Look out for my spring and summer updates to see how these plots progress from mulch and bamboo stakes to four garden beds full of flowers and buzzing insects!

Reference articles: https://www.asla.org/NewsReleaseDetails.aspx?id=53135 http://www.gardenmediagroup.com/garden-media-releases-2019-garden-trends-report

2019 Native Plant Field Season Update

I’m thrilled to announce that this summer I completed the third field season of my study. This is slightly bittersweet – while I’m excited that we are done with hot fieldwork, I will miss chasing bees around the farm and the view of Mt. Hood. I’m incredibly thankful for this third season of data, as it will help account for some of the temporal variation inherent in ecological studies. In fact, pollinator communities in particular tend to be highly variable both within and across field seasons. Having three seasons of data will hopefully allow us to identify more reliable patterns of pollinator visitation between my study plants.

Lots of lab work remains, as I’m tackling the insect samples that we collected with the bee vacuum. With the help of a dissecting scope, I’m attempting to identify the each specimen to at least the taxonomic level of family to get a sense of the broader insect communities associated with each flower species in my study. It will be several months before I can share this species-richness data, but in the meantime I have bee abundance data to share with you!

Aaron and Lucas in the native plant study site, in 2017. You can see the 1m by 1 m plot in the foreground by Aaron, a second one near Lucas, and a few more in the distance.

As a refresher, we performed timed pollinator observations at each plot. This consisted of observing each blooming plot for five minutes and counting all the insects that landed on open flowers. Bees were sorted to “morpho-type” (honey bee, bumblebee, green bee, and other native bee). Though this doesn’t give us species-level information on the floral visitors, it allows us to understand which plants attracted the most pollinators overall, and allows us to detect any patterns of visitation between honey bees, bumblebees, and solitary native bees. Below is a summary of some of the highlights.

2019 overall bee abundance by plant species:

  • Origanum vulgare, Lavendula intermedia, and Eschscolzia californica were top five bee plants in 2019, just as they were in 2018.
  • In 2019, Phacelia heterophylla and Solidago canadensis jump into the top five, while Nepeta cataria and Gilia capitata fall out of the top five. It should be noted that Nepeta was the sixth most attractive plant, with about the same visitation level as Solidago.
  • Again, similar to 2018, it appears that honey bee visitation was driving the high visitation rates of the popular exotic garden species (marked with a red asterisk), while native wildflowers were being visited more frequently by native bees.
  • I’ve included the 2017 and 2018 overall abundance graphs as well, for comparison. You can see that the overall abundance was higher in 2019 for the two most popular plants, at about ~25 bees per observation period!

2017 overall bee abundance by plant species:

2018 overall bee abundance by plant species:

Since honey bee visitation drove the high abundance of many of the top pollinator plants, I took honey bee visits out of the data set and made a new graph, to compare which plants were most attractive to native bees.

2019 native bee abundance by plant species:

As you can see above, honey bees are excluded from the analysis, the top five most popular plant species completely reshuffles.

I’ve included that 2017 and 2018 native bee abundance data below for comparison.

2017 native bee abundance by plant species:

2018 native bee abundance by plant species:

Please stay tuned for more updates on the bee species richness we collected in 2019, as well as data on the other insects (pests and natural enemies) that we collected!

Unpopular Opinion: Saving Honey Bees Does Very Little to Save the Bees

Although I have been studying garden bees for the past three years, I was never focused on honey bees. From a biodiversity point of view, they are not very interesting to me. They are non-native and abundant. In fact, honey bees were the most abundant bee species that we collected in Portland-area gardens (332 individuals collected), even though we took great care not to collect more than one individual per visit, when hand-collecting.

Some of the 300+ individual honey bees that we collected from Portland area gardens, even though we took great care to not hand collect more than a single individual honey bee per garden, per site visit.

Honey bees, which hail from Europe, are only one of 20,000 bee species, worldwide. In North America, there are 4,000 species of bee. In Oregon, we have between 400-500 species of bee. From Portland area gardens, we have documented 86 species of bee (with our 2019 bees still awaiting identification).

Unlike some native bees, honey bees are not at risk of extinction. Compare this to bumblebees. We found 17 species of bumblebee in Portland gardens, two of which (12%) are at risk of endangerment or extinction, due to declining populations: Bombus fervidus and Bombus caliginosus. Across North America, more than 25% of bumblebee species are thought to be at risk of extinction.

By focusing ‘save the bee’ campaigns on honey bees, we may be neglecting the bee species that really need our help. In fact, researchers have started to call out organizations and advertising campaigns that promote feel good stories about honey bee conservation as a form of ‘bee washing’. You can visit www.bee-washing.com to learn more about companies that promote their product or organization as being bee-friendly, in a less than genuine way.

Researchers have documented at least seven different ways that honey bees may harm native bee species (summarized in Cane and Tepedino, 2016):

  1. Honey bees monopolize and deplete nectar and pollen from local plant communities, which can reduce native bee reproduction.
  2. By depleting local plant resources, native bee females have to devote more time and energy to fly and find new resources, which also reduces native bee reproduction.
  3. Unlike honey bees, most bees are solitary, which means that they do not live in colonies and they do not have a queen. Solitary females who have access to fewer floral resources produce fewer daughters and more sons. Since female bees are needed to maintain a population, this skewed sex ratio can slow population growth and recovery in native bees.
  4. When females collect less nectar and pollen, they have less food to feed their young. These bees grow up to be smaller, and are more likely to die over winter, compared to well-fed bees.
  5. The longer a solitary bee mom is away from her nest, the higher risk that parasites and predators will attack her unguarded young.
  6. Honey bees can physically block native, solitary bees from preferred pollen hosts.
  7. Honey bees have many diseases. Some honey bee viruses have been found in native bee communities. Researchers think flowers that are visited by both native bees and honey bees are analogous to an elementary school water fountain: a place where repeat visitors can pick up a pathogen.

Please note that I am not suggesting that you extinguish honey bees from your garden. What I am asking, instead, is that you take the time to learn about and to notice some of the other 80+ species of bee that you might find in your garden. My group is creating a ‘Bees of Portland Gardens’ guide that we hope can help you in this journey. In the meantime, there are some great guides that are currently available. One is Wilson and Carrill’s ‘The Bees in Your Backyard: a guide to North America’s bees’. This book is available at Powell’s City of Books, as well as on Amazon. The second is August Jackson’s ‘The Bees of the Willamette Valley: a comprehensive guide to genera’. This free guide can be found online.

The first step to saving something you love is to be able to recognize it and to call it by name.

References

  • Cane and Tepedino. 2016. Gauging the effect of honey bee pollen collection on native bee communities. Conservation Letters 10: 205-210.
  • Jackson. 2019. The Bees of the Willamette Valley: A Comprehensive Guide to Genera. Self-Published, Online: https://tinyurl.com/y4qfssrl.
  • Wilson and Carrill. 2016. Bees in Your Backyard: A Guide to North America’s Bees. Princeton University Press.

How Alan Alda Helped Me to Become a Better Teacher

A few weeks ago, I tweeted about the difference that the Alda Center for Communicating Science has made in my teaching. To my sincere surprise and delight, Mr. Alda, himself, quoted my tweet, in one of his own. It made my day.

And today, after my last lecture of the term, the lab instructor sent me this note:

“I have students here putting in extra time (!!) on their [insect] collections, and they’re talking about how much they loved your class, and the applause you got at the end of class today. One of them is saying how it’s about time she had a class that was 100% relevant to Ag. I’m so happy for you, Gail, . . . I wish you could hear their conversation 🙂 “

To fully appreciate how much these comments mean to me, you have to understand how much of a struggle it is for me to teach. I score very high on the introversion scale. I hate the idea of teaching as performance (why do I have to entertain them?). I’m a stickler for academic rigor. My classes have a reputation for being difficult. And, I teach a required course that all majors must take (whether they are interested in entomology, or not), that is scheduled for M/W/F at 8am. All of these things, added together, make me a fairly unpopular teacher.

But this term was different. In January, I spent two days in New York City for the Alda Center for Communicating Science STEM immersion program. This workshop could not have come at a better time in my professional career. I was burnt out, in part because of: (a) the corporatization of higher education, (b) students who increasingly take a customer-centered approach to their education (where the customer is always right), (c) attacks on and rollbacks of scientific progress at Federal Agencies, and (d) public distrust of science. These things have all taken their toll on me and on my love for my profession. I was looking for something to re-ignite my love for science and teaching, and to stave off my growing cynicism.

The Alda immersion program did all of these things, and more. The premise of the workshop is that ‘Connection is the Key’ to effective science communication. The workshop instructors (including Alan Alda) use improv exercises in small groups and with partners to teach storytelling, message design, and how to really listen to, empathize with, and engage with your audience. Key messages were embraced over the recitation of hypotheses and theory. A heavy focus was put on connecting with your audience, so that even if they were not ready to listen to you in that moment of time, you might be able engage them at some point in the future.

There were two turning points to the workshop, at least for me.

The first was when we partnered up with someone to explain our science in 2 minutes, then 1 minute, then 30 seconds. Between each round, our partner gave us feedback on how to refine our message. When we came back together as a group, each person had to explain their partner’s science, rather than their own. In almost all cases, folks did better explaining someone else’s science ~ because we didn’t get bogged down in details. This really helped me to limit how much information I present in my classes. Instead of teaching *everything a person should possibly know* about a topic, I focus on key points, and how those points relate to students’ lives.

The second was when Mr. Alda demonstrated how he would discuss science with someone who believes the earth is flat. There was such a genuine kindness in the ‘conversation’ he had with the flat-earther ~ acknowledging their experience (the earth looks flat to them) while adhering to the science that demonstrates that earth is a sphere. It made me realize that I had become so accustomed to being right and defending my interpretation of science, that I rarely listened to others who disagreed with me. I was too busy formulating my retort, to truly listen to and understand their perspective.

This revelation was coupled with an exercise that was called ‘My Dear Friend’. In this exercise, you spend a few minutes ranting at your partner about something that drives you crazy. I ranted about the state of higher education, today. Your partner then has to share your rant with the group, by saying something like ‘this is my dear friend, Gail, and she cares passionately about the education that her students receive.’ I use this exercise, nearly every week. In fact, when I returned to the office from the workshop, there was an anonymous letter in my mailbox that was signed by ‘a disgruntled Master Gardener’. I reread that letter, and instead of feeling attacked, I could see how much the person loved this program that I help to coordinate, and how they wanted to share their passion for the program.

In terms of my teaching, the Alda workshop helped me to slow down, focus on key messages, and truly care for my students. This term, I am 6 classes behind where I would normally be. But, I think my students learned and retained more than they have in the past.

I stopped worrying about students who missed class, or who might try to cheat. Instead, I designed my class so that students who had to miss class (for whatever reason) had built in buffers that could help them absorb or make up lost points. These included things like dropping your two lowest quizzes, or earning extra credit points for lecture participation. I built an array of assessments into the class, including TopHat clickers from mobile devices, and adding ample short answer and essay sections to my exams. These things both made it more difficult to cheat, but also offered students with different learning styles different chances to do well.

I started bringing in breakfast on Fridays. I did this because Thursday is the traditional ‘party night’ on a university campus. In the past, my 8am Friday classes often had 15 or fewer people in attendance. (There are 50 enrolled in the course). I wanted to bring a small breakfast to say ‘thank you for showing up’. Over the course of the term, more and more students started to show up, and not just on Fridays. They went out of their way to thank me. Some told me that they were hungry, and that the small meal made a big difference to their day. Being a Filipina who loves to feed people, by nature, that’s all I needed.

There were a few other things, as well . . . students who shared some difficulty that they were going through that made it difficult for them to do well in class. Instead of my past approach of ‘not my problem’, I tried to help where I could.

Mostly, when I stopped feeling like I was there to serve as some sort of academic guardian . . . keeping all but the most-worthy students out . . . that’s when everyone (including myself) became invested in learning.

When I said goodbye to my students today, I heard the applause . . . but I was so confused. Was someone watching YouTube videos, in the back? It honestly makes me tear up to think that it might have been because they loved the learning environment that we built, together.

Native Plants and Pollinator Survey

Aaron Anderson is repeating his original survey on native plants and pollinators. This time, he is trying to understand how knowledge of a plant’s ecological function may alter impressions of native plants.

The survey takes about 25-30 minutes to complete. Folks who have taken the survey thus far have commented on how much they learned from taking the time to answer the questions.

If your time and interest allows, we would be extremely grateful if you could take the time to respond to this survey. The direct link to the survey is:

http://oregonstate.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_9Alhv961rZX8Vs9

If you have friends or acquaintances who also might be interested in taking the survey, please feel free to share it with them.

A syrphid fly pays a visit to a California poppy at the North Willamette Research and Extension Center.

A bee visiting one of the Canada goldenrod plots in our Native Plant study.

Gilia capitata

Lotus unifoliolatus

Is the Insect Apocalypse Upon Us?

With all due respect to Beyonce, insects were recognized as ‘The Little Things that Run the World‘ by entomologist E.O. Wilson, decades before Beyonce’s 2011 hit song. As Wilson wrote in his iconic perspective piece:

The truth is that we need invertebrates but they don’t need us. If human beings were to disappear tomorrow, the world would go on with little change.

In fact, Wilson noted, the Earth ‘would set about healing itself‘. But if invertebrates were to disappear, Wilson predicts that ‘I doubt the human species could last more than a few months‘.

 

California Tortoiseshell, taken in a Portland-area garden on August 22, 2017.

Insects, the most abundant and numerous of all invertebrate animals, play a particularly important role in our world and in our life. Not counting the enormous contributions of non-native honey bees, which annually help to bring $235 and $577 billion dollar worth of food to the global market, native insects contribute $71 billion dollars (inflation adjusted to 2019) worth of ecological services to our economy and to our society.

So what are we to make of the recent NY Times article entitled ‘The Insect Apocalypse is Here‘, or the Atlantic article entitled ‘Is the Insect Apocalypse Really Upon Us?’.

These articles covered recent science papers that have caused a lot of concern, and generated a lot of attention. In the ENT 518 class that I am teaching this term (Current Topics in Entomology), our class spent time dissecting and discussing the science papers, as well as popular press coverage of each study.

The first paper, published in 2017 by Hallman and colleagues, documented a 76% decline in insect biomass over a time period spanning nearly three decades. In the peak summer season, the decline was even larger (82%). These researchers had been sampling protected areas in Germany using Malaise traps. This group is working to identify the insects that they collect ~ but, because it takes so much time and specialized expertise to identify most insects to species ~ they also took data on the collective weight of the insects that they collected. This is how they were able to show a 76% decline in insect biomass, between 1989 and 2016.

Mardon Skipper taken in a Portland-area garden on August 22, 2017.

What caused this massive decline in insect biomass? To address this question, They constructed a series of models to try and identify what factors might explain this precipitous drop in insect biomass (which is being used a proxy for insect abundance). They did not find evidence (from their mathematical models) that climate factors (e.g. temperature, precipitation, wind speed), habitat factors (e.g. site conditions, plant species), or habitat factors (e.g. amount of forest, grassland, water) were responsible for insect declines. Because they did not find evidence that climate change, landscape conversions, or habitat changes reduced insect biomass, they concluded that factors which they did not measure were responsible for insect declines. Specifically, they hypothesize that agricultural intensification (pesticide use, year round tillage, increased use of fertilizers) was a plausible cause.

Students taking the ENT 518 class were mostly convinced that the researchers had documented a large and significant decrease in insect biomass over the time period of the study. Students agreed that the loss of biomass reflects a loss in insect abundance, and probably reflects a loss of insect diversity. Students were more reserved in their assessment of the authors’ suggestion that agricultural intensification was the cause of the decline. Although they agreed that it is a plausible explanation, they wanted to see data to address this hypothesis, rather than having the authors arrive at this conclusion because they eliminated other potential causes of insect decline (e.g. climate change, landscape conversion, habitat change).

Western Tiger Swallowtail, taken in a Portland-area garden on July 27, 2017.

The second paper, published in 2019 by Sanchez-Bayo and Wyckhuys, was a review of other papers that studied insect declines. The authors searched science databases for the words ‘insect’ AND ‘decline’ AND ‘survey’, and then reviewed the hundreds of papers (653!) that they found to limit their survey to 73 long-term studies that took place for 10 years of more. The authors then summarize the details of each study, according to major insect groups (e.g. butterflies, bees, beetles, flies). Ultimately, they report that 41% of all insects are in decline, and that across all insect species, the annual rate of decline is 1% per year, and the annual rate of insect extinction is 1% per year. Like the Hallman et al. paper, Sanchez-Bayo and Wyckhuys suggest that agriculture is to blame:

Overall, the systemic, widespread and often superfluous use of pesticides in agricultural and pasture land over the past 60 years has negatively impacted most organisms, from insects to birds to bats . . ‘.

The students in ENT 518 honed in on the fact that the authors searched for the words ‘insect’ AND ‘decline’. Accordingly, there was a level of bias in their search procedures. Students seemed convinced that many insect groups are in decline, but were less willing to agree that the overall level of decline, rate of decline, and rate of extinction reported by the authors were accurate estimates. In addition, although students agree that pesticide use is likely to blame for insect declines, they would have been more convinced, if there were better data tying the two together.

Students then discussed how the science papers were translated into a narrative for the NY Times and Atlantic articles. We talked about the elements of a story, and how as scientists, we don’t worry about setting the scene, developing characters, or of conflict in a plot. But, many of us are also science communicators via our work in Extension or through other outreach efforts. If we can paint a picture that people can relate to ~ if we can get them to notice and to share their experience with noticing fewer insects in their yard or their town ~ will they care more about insect conservation?

One of the major reasons that we do the work that we do in the Garden Ecology Lab is because we believe that how we manage our gardens can truly make a difference to insect conservation. If we can take better notice of those ‘little things that run the world’ and share these experiences with our friends and family . . . will that make a difference? I believe that it will. In fact, it is the reason that I come to work, each and every day, excited to learn more about how we can make this world a better place through gardening.