I recently spent a semester working with researchers at the Northeast Climate Science Center.
Read my post on the Early Career Climate Forum blog about my experience here:
For those of us living in North Carolina, the recent cold snap and onion snow might have us feeling blue. For the last month, folks have been outside in their shorts and sandals, enjoying the sunshine and warm temperatures. The early arrival of spring, from frog calls to spring flowers to the emergence of bees, have given way to many conversations about what an early spring could mean for the rest of the season.
Early springtime weather did not hit North Carolina alone. The New York Times recently published an article on early spring, and the United States Geological Survey (USGS) examined some of the consequences of the early spring in the southeast. In the article by the USGS, the author stated that these “[c]hanges in the timing of spring can affect human health, bringing early-season disease-carriers such as ticks and mosquitos, and an earlier, longer and more vigorous pollen season.”
As I sat outside and enjoyed the warm temperatures in February, I thought about these articles and my own research. Will it matter if the flowers begin blooming earlier than their pollinators emerge? Will strawberry farmers in the area be able to produce a healthy crop after unexpected frosty temperatures? Although many of these questions remain unanswered, there is a lot of ongoing research asking questions about climate change and phenology, or the timing of life cycle events in plants and animals. If you are interested in learning more about phenology or learning how to help with phenological research, visit the National Phenology Network webpage.
National Phenology Network:
NY Times article about indicators of spring:
NY Times article about early spring:
Autumn olive: a ostentatious ornamental, an irritating invasive, a refreshing recipe, and perhaps a pollinator's paradise?
On a gray, unusually warm afternoon in the middle of January, a passerby along the trails of the Duke Forest might have overheard two researchers shouting back and forth to one another. Disappointing remarks such as, "Could it be this brown, dead-looking bush? Or is it one of these other similarly spiky leafless twigs?" to excited cheers like "These leaves are without a doubt undulate. Hey! I have never used the word before and I found autumn olive" drifted around the forest for all to hear. Autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellata) has been on my mind of late because an undergraduate student at Duke University is starting an independent research project on it. She hypothesizes that the presence of autumn olive flowers affects the pollinator community of native flowering herbs. Furthermore, she hypothesizes that the change in the pollinator community could potentially reduce fruit and seed production of the natives. We are going to start field work in about one month to find out if her hypothesis is correct, but first, we are learning more about this plant.
Autumn olive is an invasive plant and was introduced to the United States from Asia in the 1830s. The term invasive sounds threatening, so why did people bring this plant to the United States and what is so bad about it? It was promoted as a way to control erosion and provide wildlife habitat in disturbed areas. Around the 1950s, autumn olive became widespread. The problem with autumn olive is that it can grow in areas where resources, including water and nutrients, are quite scarce. The ability of autumn olive to grow in these poor habitats allowed it to rapidly outcompete native plants. Additionally, this pesky plant grows quickly and shades out smaller grasses and forbs growing nearby.
It sounds like the autumn olive situation is all doom and gloom, but what can we do about this problem? First and foremost, do not purchase autumn olive for your yard. Although it is not illegal to sell or buy this plant in many states, it is best practice not to buy non-native plants. If you have autumn olive in your yard, remove the entire plant, including the aboveground plant material and roots. If mechanical removal is not an option, herbicides are also often used to eradicate autumn olive. If you see autumn olive in a neighbor's yard or in the woods, you can still help reduce its spread by collecting the berries (with permission) and using them in a recipes including jam, fruit leather, and pies. It is important to process the autumnberries and not to eat them raw. Killing the seeds prior to eating them reduces the chance they will end up back in the environment.
If we know this plant is a problem and we should remove it, why bother spending time researching it? Although eradication efforts are underway in many places, autumn olive still exists. Understanding how this invasive plant interacts with natives for living resources, particularly pollinators, its important for predicting future responses of native plants to non-native plants. Right now, we are in the beginning stages of this research project and have been speeding time learning how to identify this plant. (Un)fortunately have come across many plants to work with. Stay tuned for our results!
*Photos were taken by Melina Keighron in Jan. 2017. Positive identification of this plant is pending. Do not collect berries from plants based on the photos above.
Resources about autumn olive:
Double-edged sword of field season: one ecologist's perspective on happiness and anxiety in the field
The smiling faces of researchers working amidst magnificent mountain views do not represent the full spectrum of emotions felt during a field season. For a field researcher, feelings of awe for impressive landscapes and organisms are often burdened by exhausting work. Early mornings, strenuous hiking, unpredictable weather conditions, and long hours give the field season an unfortunate reputation.
The stunning views and moments spent away from the fluorescent lights of the office have always outweighed the unpleasant aspects of field research for me. Therefore, during my first year of graduate school, I decided to take on two field seasons. I study the flowers that bloom very early and for only a brief period of time each season. Fortunately, flowering starts and ends in North Carolina (field site one) well before the snow even melts in parts of Colorado (field site two). Unfortunately, I have back-to-back field seasons. Albeit demanding at times, when something goes wrong in one field season, I have a backup project. Given the sense of security from my backup field season and my fondness of the outdoors, I thought that six months of fieldwork would be painless.
After just two years of field season doubleheaders, I have noticed myself spending more time feeling stressed than enthusiastic about field season. Not only has the work been taxing, I find it challenging constantly being aware of my safety. When I go to work in the office, I am never concerned about accidentally stepping on a snake, getting bit by a deer tick, or fleeing from an impending lightning storm. Although these risks are small and my anxiety is often unwarranted, I have become increasingly worried about even far-fetched risks. This anxiety has made focusing in the field incredibly problematic and led to collecting fewer and fewer data points.
My current bout of nervousness began during one of my field seasons− I was confronted with a situation that interfered with my safety. I have always felt very secure at my field sites, but at that moment I was powerless in a distressing situation. Since that point, I have been engrossed in articles and blogs about safety in the field, perhaps consuming too much of my time. When I returned to school after my double field season ended this summer, I reconsidered my future in field research. I am able to work on my data analyses remotely, so I decided to spend the past semester in my hometown. Removing myself from classes, meetings, and social events allowed me to reflect on a difficult field season. Now that I am approaching the end of my hiatus from campus, I am excited to return to normal graduate student life. I am very fortunate that I have been able to spend my semester working remotely and thinking about my future, and I am finally ready to get back to being a field ecologist.
Although it took me stepping away from school before realizing, the stress of field season is negligible relative to the satisfaction and happiness that I experience from it. I am now aware that some of the anxiety I experience in the field is partly due to stress from other, unrelated parts of my life. I was letting this stress manifest itself as nervousness in the field. The privilege to research questions that no one has ever answered prevented me from leaving science and graduate school. Two years in, I now understand that in order to spend all day learning outdoors, I must always remember that my and others' safety is of utmost importance, but I cannot let fear consume my life during half of the year.
I did not write this post to scare student researchers or make excuses for leaving behind all of my responsibilities in graduate school for the semester. I do, however, want students who are working in the field to be aware of your surroundings, while making sure not to let anxiety hinder your research or life. As ecologists, we meticulously plan our packing lists and field experiments, but we also need to have explicit conversations about safety and be prepared for emergency situations. Let someone know where you are going at all times and when you expect to be back. Do you reading and know the safety hazards of the areas in which you are working. Consider having a field assistant with you at all times. Be sure to voice any concerns to your supervisors before you go into the field. Finally, remember to enjoy the incredible opportunity of working in the most scenic places in the world.
“Eww! Figs have dead wasps inside of them?!”
“Mushrooms must have pollinators… Oh wait! They aren’t flowers.”
“I didn’t know humans sometimes have to act like bees and pollinate.”
These are just a few of the exclamations from middle school students during Carnegie Science Center’s SciTech Days. Middle school students from the Greater Pittsburgh area visited the Science Center in early November to attend workshops, interact with experts in science and technology, and enjoy the center’s exhibits. The festival featured displays from local companies and universities, including PPG, University of Pittsburgh’s School of Pharmacy, and University of Pittsburgh’s Department of Biological Sciences. I had the opportunity to help with a hands-on exhibit on pollination ecology, which was organized and run by the Ashman Lab. Rainee Kaczorowski, a postdoctoral associate in the lab, designed an interactive display where we asked students to think about what types of foods require insect pollinators. We had a variety of fruits and vegetables on the table, including mushrooms, strawberries, and figs. Students were often surprised by the fact that many of the fruits and vegetables that they love to eat require pollinators. They also learned what types of living and non-living vectors are pollinators- water, wind, birds, insects, non-human primates, humans, and many more!
For more information on SciTech Days, please visit http://www.carnegiesciencecenter.org/stemcenter/scitech-days/.
All opinions reflected in this blog post are those of the author and not of the scientists and authors of the articles presented.
The Washington Post recently published an article discussing how the addition of Hawaiin native bees to the endangered species list does not necessarily imply that honey bees and thousands of other native bee species are also at risk of extinction. With a title as strong as "Believe it or not, the bees are doing just fine," I could have easily walked away from reading the Washington Post article feeling optimistic about the future of bees. Christopher Ingraham, the author of the article, addressed some of the difficulties faced by beekeepers including prohibitive cost and time investment of hive maintenance. He mentioned that although some honey bee hives have beekeepers to take care of them when faced with diseases or other problems, native bee populations do not. These problems indicate that perhaps the bees--and the people who rely on them for their livelihood or food production-- are not doing just fine. The title does not accurately reflect the state of bees, both managed and wild. Many scientists are working on understanding and mitigating problems facing bees, and I want to highlight a recent study from North Carolina about honey bees.
There is mounting evidence indicating native and honey bees (both wild and managed) are declining in abundance for a variety of reasons, including disease and pesticides. Understanding diseases prevalence for bees that live in colonies is especially critical, because it is quite easy to spread disease when there are a lot of bees living in one place, similar to the flu spreading through a college dormitory. Two detrimental pathogens, the parasitic mite (Varroa destructor) and fungal parasite (Nosema ceranae) can cause deformed wing development and gut problems, respectively, which makes it very difficult for honey bees to forage for food and hives to survive. These pathogens, among many others, are why scientists and beekeepers alike looking for effective management and mitigation strategies.
A research group from North Carolina State University led by Dr. Elsa Youngsteadt and Holden Appler wanted to know if urbanization (habitat fragmentation, urban warming, pollution) influences how honey bees tolerate pathogens such as fungal parasites, viruses, and a bacterium. To test this, they measured immune responses of city and rural honey bees (managed and wild) and the survival of worker bees when faced with stress and when healthy. They found a greater prevalence of certain viruses and mites on managed honey bees and honey bees living in the city. In addition to the presence of more diseases, managed honeybees showed a lower ability to fight off the pathogens relative to wild honey bees.
Although this is a single study conducted in North Carolina, the implications of these results are far reaching. Many cities across the US are fortunate to have managed honey bee hives for urban garden and farm pollination. From this study and others, the plight of the bees and the beekeepers is something to think about. Although there were only a few native bee species added to the endangered species list, keep in mind that even managed honey bees face a lot of hardships as a result of human activities.
Washington Post article about the state of bees:
NPR article about addition of Hawiian bee species to endangered species list:
Research article about pathogen load on honey bees in urban ares:
Youngsteadt, E., Appler, R. H., López-Uribe, M. M., Tarpy, D. R., & Frank, S. D. (2015). Urbanization increases pathogen pressure on feral and managed honey bees. PloS one, 10(11), e0142031.
and only 8 pots of coffee
You might be wondering what the above list is for. Well, it is what you need for a marathon-- a science communication marathon! Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens hosts a four day scientific communication workshop for the graduate students in their Botany in Action (BIA) program each year. The BIA program funds fieldwork for plant focused graduate student research and enables graduate students to focus on developing skills for communicating their research with the public.
The BIA fellows this year study a wide range of topics, from how to remove arsenic from contaminated soils using ferns to understanding how garlic mustard affects native plants. The posters above are student representations of some of our research. Our first order of business was explaining our research to middle school students, and they created the works of art above. In addition to speaking with middle school students, we attended workshops about how to blog effectively, create signs and posters that are visually appealing, generate infographics using free online tools, and communicate concepts with scientific illustrations.
I hope that more graduate students and early career scientists are able to have these types of experiences. Thank you to Phipps Conservatory and the other BIA fellows for a great weekend!
Over the past few months, the NY Times published many articles on honey bees and bumble bees. They reported on everything from diets of urban bees and honey bee feelings to pollinator declines. Since popular media has picked up bee fever, I wanted to write a blog post about the differences between two commonly recognized bees, honey bees and general bumble bees. To preface this blog post, we as both fruit and vegetable eaters and as scientists have a lot to learn about the bees as there are almost 20,000 known bee species.
Honey bees (Apis mellifera): Honey bees are in the family Apidae along with our well-loved bumble bees. Since these two genera are in the same family, they are more closely related to one another than they are to other bees, like mason bees or mining bees and share some of the same characteristics. The common honey bees you might see in your garden were introduced to the United States from Europe (but there are honey bees from other places too). Although many honey bees in the United States are well taken care of by dedicated beekeepers, they are some of the most amazing creatures. Up to 60,000 individual bees can work together in a hive, communicating and cooperating in order to rear new workers and create honey reserves for the winter. Imagine working all day and coming home to a hive of 60,000 others. Whew! Communicating with a large group might prove to be difficult, but honey bee workers can signal where good foraging spots are located. Workers perform the waggle dance (youtube video here). These insects combine information about distance, direction, and quality of a patch of flowers into a single dance move! They give Mick Jagger a run for his money.
Bumble bees (Bombus): There are over 45 species of bumble bees in North America, which comprises less than 2% of the bee species diversity. Although this is a small subgroup of the many bees you might see outside, there has been a recent effort by citizens and scientists to preserve bumble bee populations. This is important because bumble bee abundances have been declining over recent decades due to habitat fragmentation, disease, climate change, and other factors. Bumble bees, like honey bees, are extremely important pollinators for agriculture and the more we learn about them, the more we can prevent pollinator declines.
First, what is phenology?
According to the USA National Phenology Network, phenology "refers to key seasonal changes in plants and animals from year to year—such as flowering, emergence of insects and migration of birds—especially their timing and relationship with weather and climate." Simply, phenology is the timing of biological events. Think about that early spring years ago when you saw that Great Blue Heron in February (unusual in some parts of the country) or perhaps the longer winter that resulted in particularly late emergence of cherry tree flowers. You are now thinking about phenology! Some scientists spend a lot of their day think about timing of life cycle events in the organisms that they study, but they certainly aren't the only ones.
Why does phenology matter?
Climate change, particularly warming temperatures, cause some plants and animals to emerge earlier than they have in the past (advanced phenology). Changes in phenology could lead to mismatches between interacting species or result in conditions that are not suitable for animals. For example, warming temperatures cause some plants to begin making flowers earlier in the season than in the past, while some species are unaffected. If all of the species in the community respond differently to the same environmental cues, species’ flowering periods might begin to overlap, even if they have not in the past. If these plant species share common resources (e.g. nutrients, water, pollinators), they might now have to compete with one another for access to these resources. Keep in mind that phenology isn't only relevant to plants, but to many animals too!
Second, a (very) brief history lesson-
Phenology has been of interest for quite some time, although scientists have become keenly aware of how climate change affects phenology within the last few decades. Scientists were only able to make these connections between climate and phenological shifts because people have been recording when they observe biological events over the last few hundred years. Robert Marsham, hailed as the "father of phenology," recorded date of over 25 different springtime events, from first flowering to bird sightings in the 1700s. Not only have scientists and avid gardeners been interested in phenological observations for some time, but authors have even dabbled in phenology, including Aldo Leopold and Henry David Thoreau.
For the history gurus reading this post, Project Budburst published a video on the history of phenology.
Third, get involved!
The USA National Phenology Network (NPN) is a program that focuses on facilitating collaboration between citizens and scientists to monitor phenological events. They created NPN's Nature Notebook, which is a project that helps folks get started as phenology observers in their own backyards. All you have to do is have a valid email address, an interest in phenology, and a few minutes to spare! In addition to becoming an observer, you can sign up to receive a bi-monthly newsletter titled "Nature's Narrative", which will keep you updated on all things phenology.
If you like reading blogs and are interested in learning more about phenology in plants and animals, check out the NPN's blog recommendations.
When I think of a scientist, I must admit that I still immediately think of someone wearing a white lab coat. I imagine someone working in a white-washed, sterile room filled with test tubes and microscopes (remember Dexter's Laboratory)? If you google image search the word "scientist," you will find that the top stock photos are of images of just that- laboratory environments and multicolored concoctions. These representations of scientists are not all encompassing. In fact, most of the scientists I know don't resemble the stock photos. Ecology, or the study of organisms and their environment, requires a different type of laboratory... the natural environment. Although there are as many subfields of ecology as there are ice cream flavors (perhaps this is an overstatement), many ecologists consider nature their laboratory. We often conduct experiments and observations in remote areas, sometimes requiring us to hike and camp. The dress code for a field ecologist often includes boots, jeans, and a sunhat. Next time you are asked to think about what a scientist looks like, just remember that not all scientists look like Dexter.
To give a better sense of what I do on a daily basis, watch this short video here. This summer, I have been working at Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory in Gothic, CO. We created this video for those folks following the Phipps Botany in Action program.