Earning a PhD with Native Bees

Earning a PhD with Native Bees

Earning a PhD with Native Bees

This guest blog post is shared with us by Lila Westreich, Ph.D. Student, Tobin Disturbance Ecology Lab, University of Washington.

My research investigates the ecological effects of non-native plants and pollen on native bees in the Pacific Northwest. Pollen contains necessary amino acids and protein for bee development, but different plants have different levels of these nutrients. There are a number of different pieces and rotating parts to this question, and the initial questions are - What are native bees up to in different areas, and what are they eating? Are they staying? Are they surviving? How does the composition of the plant life around them impact their development?

To answer these initial questions, I've placed bee boxes across Seattle - in urban parks such as Discovery, Seward, and Magnuson - as well as out at Pack Forest near Mt. Rainier. At each site, I've attached hatch boxes with 20-40 of Crown Bee's mason bee cocoons and monitored emergence and nesting success. The goal is that if the bees stay, there's likely enough to eat around them; if they don't, the environment doesn't support them. We'll also be collecting plant samples to quantify what is available as forage, and identifying pollen and protein levels to see what they're eating.

In the future, we'll also use leafcutter bees from Crown Bees, as well as some reeds for nesting. It will be a similar experiment but with a new species and the late summer vegetation. The reeds allow us to destructively sample some bee larvae to test pollen left by their mothers.

I earned my undergraduate degree from the University of Minnesota in Horticulture, with a focus in Plant Breeding and Genetics. I planned to go into genetic plant research, but after realizing how much time I would have to spend in a lab room without windows, I changed my mind.

The last class I took in undergrad was a course with Dr. Marla Spivak, honeybee expert of the Midwest (and potentially the world), essentially a crash course on native and non-native bees, current challenges and research. By the end of the course, we'd heard lectures from the Xerxes Society, local farmers, and Dr. Spivak herself. We had a final class where we just asked questions we still had about bee ecology. There were so many questions brought up to which Dr. Spivak simply replied, "I have no idea. Go research it and figure it out. Go solve that problem." That course made me realize how well bee ecology wrapped up my favorite areas of science and my undergraduate degree, and how many answers were left to discover.

I currently work with Dr. Patrick Tobin at the University of Washington. We were both interested in answering these greater questions about pollinators. Native pollinators are often overlooked but becoming increasingly important as honey bees become more difficult to breed and keep alive. I'm deeply interested in native bumblebees as well as mason and leafcutter bees, and how the plant composition of different areas affects whether they inhabit an area or leave for new horizons.