Field Notes from Pennsylvania Mountain Natural Area
from MALT Research Interns Austin Lynn and Ellie Harrison. 

My name is Austin Lynn and this is my fifth summer researching plant ecology on Pennsylvania Mountain in South Park Colorado. Through my PhD research I have investigated interactions between plants and animals as well as between plants and other plants.  I find ecological research so fascinating because it allows us to look at how life is interconnected.  My favorite types of species connections to study are mutualisms, wherein two different species partner up so that both benefit.  An excellent example is that of pollination- many flowering plants produce colorful flowers filled with sweet nectar and enticing scents so that nearby insects will stop by for a meal.  In doing so, the insects are rewarded by the plant while the plant sends the insect off with its pollen so that when the insect goes to another flower of the same species, pollination can occur and the next generation of seeds can be produced.  The research I conduct on Pennsylvania Mountain all deals with different aspects of pollination.

Hi! I’m Ellie Harrison. I recently graduated from Colorado College with a bachelor’s degree in Organismal Biology and Ecology. This is my first year as a Research Intern for MALT, but my second year working at Pennsylvania Mountain. I am interested in pollination ecology and I have a passion for wildlife conservation. This summer, I will be assisting in studying bumblebees and their interactions with alpine plants.

One of my favorite things about working in the field is training new field scientists and planning and executing a new project with them. This year I am mentoring Emelyn, an undergraduate from the University of Missouri, through her project dealing with dandelion pollination. When working out on Pennsylvania Mountain, we collect any insect we see feeding on the plants and then once we are back at the field station we take a sample of pollen from the insect. One of the initial things we noticed is that some visitors of the dandelions seem to be quite effective, picking up lots of pollen, while other visitors don’t appear to pick up hardly any pollen at all! This observation led to the question of why certain pollinators may be better mutualists than others- is it because of the way they forage or feed from the flower, or is it a function of the hairiness of the pollinator? An exciting example that we just noticed from simple observations of how different insects feed from the flower is that the bee-flies, while covered in hair, do not appear to collect much pollen because they stand on top of the flower to forage. On the other hand, solitary bees such as the megachilidae dig deep into the tubes of the dandelion flowers to get the nectar at the bottom, and in the process they become covered in pollen, meaning they are effective pollinators.

Once we have collected the insects from the field, we take them back to the field station so we can sample pollen from their bodies. This process is shown in the photo below where Emelyn is making slides in the kitchen. To do this we use tiny cubes of gelatin that we brush against the bodies of pollinators. Doing this allows us to look under the microscope at traits of pollen that are successful in adhering to the pollinator, and compare to unsuccessful pollen that remains on the flower. If certain traits are more prevalent in pollen on the pollinator, that could suggest that those traits are evolving for a greater ability of the pollen grain to succeed in transferring to another flower, fertilizing it, and creating seeds! Austin Lynn 07-01-18

We started a new project this week! Although we are primarily using our occupied nest boxes for the study I told you about last week, they also present us with a great opportunity to study other aspects of the bees. We are starting some playback experiments, which involve using a speaker aimed at the nest to play buzzes (which we have previously recorded), then to see if we hear any kind of response from the bees inside the nest. We will play different types of buzzes with different purposes: the buzzes that they make when they fly, when they pollinate, and when they feel threatened. Right now, we are just hoping to hear any kind of reaction to any kind of buzz. It has long been assumed that bees can’t hear sounds. However, if we are able to hear distinct responses from the bees after the playbacks, we might be able to find some evidence to the contrary! This will require a lot more data collection and different kinds of experiments, but we are very excited to be collecting some preliminary data and eager to see what we find! Ellie Harrison, 07-01-18

We have had another week of sunny weather, beautiful views, and hard work. We are working on several different projects at once, so we are busy but learning lots! One of our biggest projects this summer involves acoustically monitoring bumble bee colonies. At the beginning of the summer, we set up nest boxes (wooden boxes with a small hole in them) at different sites on the mountain. Our hope was that they would become homes for the bumble bee queens who had spent the winter underground and were now looking for a place to start their colonies. Bumble bees usually use abandoned rodent holes or other similar cavities in the ground for their nests, but scientists have found that they will sometimes use these nest boxes, which makes it easier for us to find and study them. Luckily, a few queens moved in! Now, our goal is to use microphones and environmental sensors (to record things like temperature and humidity) inside the boxes to track the growth and development of the colony, which has never been done before. With luck, we may even hear the bees talking to each other! This past week, the queens and their eggs were the only bees occupying the boxes. We already heard the queens making some interesting sounds that we haven’t heard before. I am excited for their colonies to grow and to see what we will hear when we are listening to a box full of bees! I will be sure to report back here with any interesting findings.  Ellie Harrison, 06-24-2018

"The flowers are blooming early on Pennsylvania Mountain this year, so we are already constantly surrounded by explosions of color! Our team has had multiple conversations about how as far as jobs go, it doesn’t get much better than hiking and spending time with bees and flowers in a beautiful place every day. I am thrilled to be back and eager to start another fascinating, fun, and productive research season!

One of the several studies that I will be helping with this summer will involve acoustically monitoring bumblebees as they pollinate plants. By listening to their buzzes while they visit flowers, we can learn how often different types of plants are being pollinated, and we can also get an idea of how many bees are present at different times of the season. These findings can help us see how the relationship between plants and pollinators may be changing as changes in climate are shifting the timing of important life history events for these species. To perform this study, we are placing small microphones next to plants at different designated places in the mountain. By doing this on a weekly basis, we can compare plant/pollinator interactions at different times of the season (and hopefully in the future, different years). Yesterday was a warm and sunny day on the mountain (perfect foraging weather for bumblebees and perfect researching weather for scientists). We set up our microphones for several hours before collecting them again. We are excited to listen to what we recorded-- hopefully there are lots of bees pollinating all of these flowers!" - Ellie Harrison.