Field Notes from Pennsylvania Mountain Natural Area

Each summer MALT has two research interns at  Pennsylvania Mountain Natural Area who along with conducting research on site, also lead summer hikes for the public.  Zoe Moffett and William Vannoy are the 2016 MALT research interns. Zoe and Will also submit Field Notes with updates on the latest news. Please find their notes and photos below. 

Zoe Moffett

Growing up in a rural farm town in Connecticut, Zoë began exploring the woods at an early age.  In 2013 she left the lush forests and expansive beaches of the Northeast for the beautiful mountains and plains of Colorado.  Zoë's main interests include hiking, backpacking, kayaking and hula hooping.  She is an Organismal Biology and Ecology major at Colorado College in Colorado Springs. Zoë plans on attending graduate school with a possible focus on ecology, botany and/or conservation. 

Field Notes from Zoe:

"The field season out here is slowly beginning to wrap up! Time has flown by; my Elephantella flowers are just about done flowering and are starting to set seed. I have hours and hours of recorded audio from each of my flower patches. In the fall I will be flying to the University of Missouri in order to work with my project advisor Candi Galen who will help me sift through my data and find the recorded bumble bee buzzes. Meanwhile, I am gathering my final data from my flower patches such as what nearby flowers were blooming at the same time as the Elephantella. These various flowers most likely attract more bumble bees to the patches and therefore have an effect on my data. Next I will be placing small cages around all of my plants to keep them safe from herbivores such as deer and elk until I return to the patches to collect the mature fruits. 

In terms of the on going bee phenology study on Pennsylvania Mountain, we are just starting to catch some of the first drones of the season! Drones are the haploid, male bumble bees that are born in the late summer in order to forage on flowers and mate with the diploid, queen bumble bees. We are now catching at least 20 bees per transect up in the alpine of the mountain! However, we will be completing our last bee survey of the season this week as the students from Appalachian State start there journeys back to North Carolina." Zoe Moffett 07-29-16

"The drought period finally ended! The weather recently has been making our phenology days pretty interesting. During our flower phenology day, my friend Mary (from Appalachian State) and I had to sprint down the mountain before we were done collecting data when a thunder storm came over us. However the plots that we did get to go to showed that the higher flowers in the alpine are just about done blooming. During the last bee phenology day that the two of us had, we found the summit of Penn. Mt. to be very windy, and we barely collected any bees up in those harsh conditions. However, when we came down a little bit into the swale between the false and true summits, we became surrounded with bumble bees! We collected about 15 bees in one transect once we came down slightly from the summit! I think that the wind on the summit drove the bees down even though the area was still covered in flowers. This goes to show that day to day conditions might affect where the bees spend there time foraging." Zoe Moffett 07-20-16  

The season is flying by! We (like much of Colorado) have been experiencing a drought up on Pennsylvania Mountain. Consequently the flowers are opening, maturing, and wilting fast! My project involving setting up microphones next to Elephantella has kept me incredibly busy because the flowers are going so quickly. Every day this past week I have been setting up microphones in different patches of Elephantella in order to record the sounds of bumble bees flying through the patches as well as landing and buzz-pollinating the flowers. The anthers (male organs that contain pollen) of the Elephantella require a particular vibration in order for the pollen to be released from pollen-containing pores. Several different species of bumble bees land on the Elephantella flowers and vibrate their bodies in order to extract that pollen. I will be comparing the fitness of these flowers (by looking at their seed sets) to the number of flight and pollination buzzes that I record. In this way, I may be able to observe whether there is a better correlation of flower fitness with the number of pollinators flying through/in the patch or with the number of bees actually collecting pollen. So if you come up to Penn Mountain and hike among the trees, there is a chance you might be recorded by one of my microphones!

Up on the slopes of Pennsylvania Mountain, different wildflowers are blooming in amazing mosaics of colors. Everyone should try and visit this beautiful mountain before the season is over; it truly is unique for its expanse of alpine flowers and wildlife.  Zoë Moffett 7-17-2016

I have finished collecting samples for my first project of the summer! I’ve gathered stigmas of sky pilots as well as pollen samples from bumble bees from four sites now. I will be looking for the presence of willow pollen on the sky pilot stigmas because the encroaching willows may be having a negative impact on the ability of the sky pilots to set seed. By looking for the presence of willow pollen on bumble bees that are visiting sky pilots, I will be looking at the role of the pollinators that deposit the willow pollen onto the sky pilots. Now I just need to sit down and count pollen on 100 + slides! My next project, which should take up the rest of the summer, will involve setting up microphones in the field in order to eavesdrop on the sounds of flying bumble bees as well as the buzzing of bees collecting pollen from Elephantella. I will be collecting the fruits of these flowers in order to count their seeds and look into their fitness in relation to the bee behavior recorded via the microphones. In terms of the more collaborative projects that are taking place on Pennsylvania Mountain, every Monday everyone from the cabin conducts flower phenology studies, and every Wednesday we conduct bee phenology studies. The goals of both of these projects are to see when and where flowers are opening on the mountain as well as when and where certain species of bumble bees are starting to come out. As the July storms come in, we will be pressed to get our work done in the early morning before we’re kicked off of the mountain. Wish us luck! -Zoë Moffett 7-4-2016

For the past two weeks I have been working with Austin Lynn, a graduate student from Columbia University. We have been exploring various mountains in the Alma/Fairplay area in an attempt to find potential field sites for our projects. I am helping Austin with his research on the exotic and native species of dandelions that exist in the alpine. At the same time he is helping me with my own project; I am continuing a study that is looking at how encroaching populations of willows are affecting the alpine flower sky pilot (Polemonium viscosum). I will be collecting the female parts of sky pilot flowers (the pistils) in order to see how much willow pollen is being deposited on them by pollinators such as bumble bees. I will be looking at this at different mountain sites, including Pennsylvania Mountain. We have been in a waiting game as the snow melts on these mountains, but more and more plants are starting to flower! Last Monday Austin and I climbed Penn. Mt in order to flag out the long-term research plots where we will be observing the timing and placement of specific alpine flowers that bumble bees pollinate. We were kicked off of the mountain for a short time due to a thunder and hail storm, but once it cleared up we hiked back up! Today we returned to these flagged plots with the help of three students from Appalachian University in order to count the flowers that have emerged on Penn Mt. so far. It was a beautiful and hot day on the mountain, and we got off well before the afternoon storms hit. This week I’ll be returning to my sites with the hope that the willow and sky pilots will be flowering. Also, the guided hikes up Penn. Mt will be starting this week; I am very excited to get to show the community this beautiful, preserved mountain! - Zoë Moffett 6-20-2016

William Vannoy

William has lived his entire life in the foothills of North Carolina, where he was raised on a farming property. This farming background gave William a fair appreciation of the natural world and how important it is to maintain a healthy balance between natural areas and agriculture. William attended college at Appalachian State University in Boone, NC. It was there that William graduated with an undergraduate degree in biology education.

Field Notes from Will: 

"The regular summer research is beginning to draw to a close. The bee behavior studies are ending and the flowers are beginning to fade. This means that our work is now mostly focused on doing the bee and flower phenology.

     This week we did a large scale survey of bumble bees across the mountain. This is an annual survey that has been done for several years. This survey involves positioning groups of collectors at different positions around the mountain and collecting for an hour. These bees are then taken back to the university and used as pieces of data for continued study about the distribution of bees on Penn Mountain." Will Vannoy 07-29-16

This was a relatively uneventful end of a week for research. The data that is being collected is obviously valuable, but there are no obvious implications of the data without first compiling and analyzing the data.
      Despite this sort of 'standard week' of research, the mountain always has something interesting to learn about. For instance, this week the 'Alien Head Thistles' have started to come into bud. These are some of the largest alpine plants that exist above tree line. Usually the wind and the harsh winters keep the plants in the true alpine areas close to the ground and relatively small, but the alien head thistle is an obvious exception. These thistles are so named because of their distinct head shaped (and sized) flowering body. They are not the only thistle found in the alpine, but they certainly are unique, and it's a pleasure to see them come in. Will Vannoy  07-23-16

So far this week the research that we are working on has been continuations of projects that have already begun. We have counted the flowers in the plots and collected the bees along the plots. The data collected has been fairly expected and valuable to the continuing research.
     I have spoken with my advisor about possible projects that I may be able to explore as a part of my masters program. After spending some time on the mountain, I have a reasonable idea about what might be valuable to the research group. The project will not begin this summer, but I believe that sharing it now will help facilitate further ideas about the project. My intention is to take samples of low land invading bees as well as the native alpine bees, and using genetic relationships as well as common estimation techniques, to figure out the population densities of the different species. I then plan to create a mathematic model that with represent how the low land invaders affect the population of the native alpine bees. Will Vannoy 07-21-16

This week was a good week for research on the mountain because the weather was quite mild. There was very little cloud cover most days and this made for pleasant work and high bee activity. However, the lack of rain has taken its toll on the flowers. Many of the flowers in the plots that we use for research have begun to dry out, and unless they get some water relatively soon, the collecting and research season could prove to be shorter than usual. This is not an extremely rare occurrence, but it can cause some issues with certain projects that require substantial data sets.
     Other than the slight inconvenience of limited rainfall, the data collection in the bee plots and the flower plots are going quite well. There is one bee plot that does not seem to have many bees in it, though. There have been no bees collected on this plot, but the absence of bees in this plot may have as many implications as the presence of bees would, and is thus valuable data still.
     The behavior study of bees is going quite well. Each day tends to yield around two bees that can be observed in a reasonable amount of time, so this makes for slow work. The data that is being collected does seem to have a trend, though. This trend could prove quite valuable if the numbers show that it is a strong enough trend to make a specific claim about the foraging behavior of the bees.  Will Vannoy 07-17-16

Now that a semi-formal routine has been worked out for the weekly schedule, research has begun to take full effect. We have created 'plots' that's will be used to take bumble bee samples. These plots are positioned in various places around Penn Mountain. By taking samples of what bees are at what location every week, we can collect valuable data about the distribution of bees throughout the mountain.
     In addition to setting up bumble bee plots, we have also begun a study about the foraging behavior of bumble bees. In this study we are comparing two species of bees that are quite similar to each other. Small flower plots are set up inside of tents so that no other pollenators may access the flowers. Bees are then allowed to move around inside the tent, one at a time and forage on the flowers. By observing what flowers the bees visit most frequently we can figure out what their preference of flowers are. This data can be extremely valuable when we think about trying to preserve the diversity of bees on Penn Mountain. - Will Vannoy 07/02/16

"After arriving in Fairplay, Colorado with my driving companions early on Sunday, the trio of us promptly went to sleep in an attempt to recover from our 24 hour drive from North Carolina. The following day was mostly spent acclimating to the drastic changes that we were experiencing. One of the most drastic changes that I have noticed since arriving here is the size of the sky. In NC there are many trees and hills and other things that obstruct the view of the sky, but here in CO there are fewer obstacles to obstruct the view. Within the first day of being here I saw the largest cloud I’ve ever seen in my life. I don’t know if this cloud looked so large because I’m closer to it or if it simply looked so large because I could see the entire cloud. Another major difference that I have noticed is the humidity. The foothills of NC have relatively high humidity all the time. In contrast, the air up here in CO seems to be void of moisture. All in all the transition has been relatively smooth. The rest of the week was spent preparing for the upcoming research season. I feel lucky to have been afforded the opportunity to come to CO and work with MALT and the university researchers alike."  - Will Vannoy 06-14-16