Bumblebee scientists do research on bees in Nome
By Julia Lerner
Hailey Scofield grew up chasing bumblebees across her backyard in Icy View.
“You see bears and moose come through your yard, it’s kind of a biologist’s dream,” Scofield said. “But I got really interested in bees for some reason. They look like little aliens.”
Though her family moved away from Nome around 2007, she always wanted to come back to Norton Sound to learn more about the bumblebees dotting the tundra. Now, Scofield is a honeybee biologist and PhD candidate at Cornell University in upstate New York, and she’s back in Nome this week to formally research the little pollinators.
Bumblebees are the often-unseen heroes of the Arctic tundra, where they are essential for pollinating berries and other plants.
“Bees do a lot of crucial pollination, particularly in cold places,” explained Leah Valdes, Scofield’s research partner and classmate at Cornell. “Bumblebees especially. They’re big, fluffy, can withstand the cold, and can fly when there is snow on the ground.”
Despite their importance, very little is known about the bumblebees present in the Bering Strait, though Scofield and Valdes hope to change that through preliminary research. The duo has spent almost three weeks driving across the Nome road system, collecting bees every few miles to study populations and develop a better understanding of what bees exist in the region, what plants they’re pollinating this time of year, and what sort of stressors and parasites might be present.
“No one really knows how bees have been doing in most of Alaska, but especially in Western Alaska,” Valdes said. “To begin with, we wanted to just come see what species even exist in this area.”
“It’s kind of shocking, actually, that we don’t know anything about Alaska’s bumblebees,” Scofield said. The research team has spent the last few weeks exploring Bureau of Land Management and Alaska state land, and recently got approval to collect bees from Sitnasuak land.
Currently, the two researchers are conducting preliminary research to establish a baseline for bumblebee populations and to see if a long-term research study is feasible in the region.
Scofield and Valdes hope their collections can contribute to research decades from now by establishing a baseline “bee library.”
“Usually, in other places and bigger cities, there are, like, several hundred dead bugs in libraries where you can go and say ‘Oh yes, I can see that these insects have gotten slightly larger by one millimeter in the last few decades.’ Here, there’s absolutely nothing,” Scofield explained. “That was something we wanted to do when we were thinking about coming to Nome, but there’s only a handful of specimens that have ever been collected here. In 20, or 50, or 100 years, if somebody wants to see if the bees in this area are the same, they can go see our collection- kind of like a library, but of dead insects.”
Across the world, bumblebees and other bee species have been dying at an alarming rate as a result of heavy pesticide use and climate change. “Bumblebees are super susceptible to climate change,” Scofield explained. “In other areas of the world, there are noticeable ‘mismatches’ between the bees and the flowers they rely on, where flowers bloom too early and the bees are not changing their life cycles fast enough, and the populations are declining quickly as a result.”
During their preliminary research, the two researchers have found that bee populations here appear to be relatively healthy, though they have little historic data to compare. They also said that their current research is leading to more questions about bee behavior and populations.
“We don’t know how the bee population has changed over time,” Valdes said. “Just because we don’t have as many bees in Ithaca [New York] as in Nome doesn’t necessarily mean that the bee population hasn’t been declining here.”
Following their field research in the Nome area, the two researchers plan to transport their bee collections, including live hives collected from local homes, back to Ithaca for further study. At their Cornell lab, they’ll be able to identify individual bee species “literally using the bee’s knees,” Scofield said, as well as parasites and foods present in bee guts and collected pollen samples.
The team hopes to return to the region next summer to collect more data and speak with locals familiar with the terrain.
“Something that has been so useful here is that people really pay attention to the land here,” Scofield said. “People notice the flowers, and even if they’re afraid of bees, people notice them. They’ll say to us ‘we went to pick berries here and there’s tons of bees, so we’re going to avoid that place, but you should go and collect bees.’ That makes things so much easier.”
“There’s a saying we hear from other grad students,” Scofield continued. “A week in the lab is worth a day in a library, and a day in a library is worth an hour in the bar and coffee shop. We can get so many anecdotal bits of information that makes the actual field research so much easier.”