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.