6 scientists, 1,000 miles, 1 prize: The Arctic Alaska Bumblebee

By James Gorman, The New York Times - October 17, 2016
The Bombus polaris, also known as the arctic bumblebee, at the Toolik Field Station in Fairbanks, Alaska, July, 2016. A team of researchers scoured the wilds of northern Alaska for Bombus polaris, a big bee that has adapted to the cold and that can teach them more about the effects of climate change. (Katie Orlinsky / The New York Times)
The Bombus polaris, also known as the arctic bumblebee, at the Toolik Field Station in Fairbanks, Alaska, July, 2016. A team of researchers scoured the wilds of northern Alaska for Bombus polaris, a big bee that has adapted to the cold and that can teach them more about the effects of climate change. (Katie Orlinsky / The New York Times)


“To bees, time is honey.”
— Bernd Heinrich, “Bumblebee Economics”

One hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle, by the side of a dusty road, two women in anti-mosquito head nets peer at a queen bumblebee buzzing furiously in a plastic tube.

“I think it’s the biggest bumblebee I’ve caught in my life!” Kristal Watrous says.

S. Hollis Woodard looks at the prize and says, “It’s the biggest frigging bumblebee I’ve ever seen in my life!”

Woodard, an assistant professor at the University of California, Riverside; her lab manager, Watrous; and a small team of young academics have embarked on a bee-hunting road trip from Fairbanks to Prudhoe Bay and back, almost 1,000 miles all told, more than 800 on the Dalton Highway.

They want to find out more about the bees of the Arctic, the planet’s advance experiment in climate change. Melting sea ice and a rising ocean affect its coasts. Longer, warmer summers are changing plant life in the interior, and are bound to affect the lives of insects. But even though bees are by far the most important pollinators for tundra plants—some of which, like berries, are traditionally prized by Alaska Natives—not enough is known about bee populations and behavior even to spot change when it occurs. That’s what the team hopes to remedy.

I joined the group the night before, and we are now tramping over tundra and through low willows near a maintenance site for the nearby trans-Alaska pipeline. The site, called the Chandalar Shelf, lies in the shadow of mountain peaks as sharp as freshly made Stone Age axes — the beginning of the Brooks Range.

It is the group’s third day in the field, and my first, and although the site is actually buzzing with bees, it seems that bee hunting is like fishing. No matter where you go and when you get there, someone always says, “You shoulda been here yesterday.” Or the day before that.

Another researcher, Jessica Purcell, an assistant professor in the entomology department at Riverside, said that at the Arctic Circle two days ago, “you couldn’t shake a net at a flower without catching a bee.”

She and her husband, Alan Brelsford, both newbies to the bee business, caught 40 each. “We had to let some go,” said Brelsford, who is starting at Riverside this fall as an assistant biology professor.

Here, the bees aren’t quite that numerous, and the hunters are every bit as intense as siblings on an Easter egg hunt.

Two of them are actually siblings. Woodard’s brother, Bren, an ex-Marine and devoted participant in military history re-enactments, carries a shotgun when there is a concern about grizzlies, but it doesn’t seem to interfere with his bee hunting. He ranges far and wide, as does Jeff Diez, a plant ecologist and the grizzled veteran of the group. He has been at the university for three years.

The bee stalkers run and pounce, swiping hand-held nets like the ones butterfly collectors use, calling out, “Bee!” or “Got one!” when they are successful. They pop them into plastic tubes and bring them to Michelle Duennes, a postdoctoral researcher in Woodard’s lab, for identification.

As she looks at the bees, species names roll off her tongue like ingredients in a Hogwarts potion. Sylvicola. Neoboreus. Balteatus. All bumblebees, all in the same resonant genus, Bombus.

As the team gets ready to move on, Duennes takes a few plastic tubes from Woodard’s brother, whose reputation as a bee hunter grows with each day’s successes.

“You’re like the bee whisperer,” Duennes tells him.

In its winter coat, the Dalton Highway is the star of the reality television show “Ice Road Truckers.” Partly paved and part gravel, it is more like a dust road in mid-July, but the trip could still qualify as reality TV for natural history nerds. Call it the Polarbee Express.

All the scientists are under 40. They don’t take themselves too seriously. Diez tolerates constant teasing about his Australian bush hat;, to her many tattoos, Woodard has added one of a bee larva. Duennes is a roller-derby devotee who goes by the apt nom de guerre Polly Nator.

The trip is being financed by a university grant to encourage collaboration among young scientists.

“We’re at a special place in our careers,” Woodard said.

They hadn’t been in the field together, but given the available grants, “We said, well what’s the craziest thing we could think of doing?” The answer: going north to Alaska to scout the condition of bumblebees in the Arctic, where climate change is occurring at a rapid rate.

Besides, Woodard says, she has been interested in expanding beyond her recent work of studying proteins in bee brains.

“I’m really lab oriented,” she says, standing in a cloud of mosquitoes with a bug net over her head, mountains in the background and the dust of 18-wheelers on the narrow highway a few hundred yards away.

“I’m trying to get out more.”

‘Pandas of the Insect World’

The authors of a guide to North American bumblebees begin their volume with the sentence: “Everyone likes bumblebees.”

“They’re the pandas of the insect world,” Woodard says. “They’re big and fuzzy. People can see them. They move a little slower.”

There are 250 species, a small fraction of the world’s 20,000 bee species. Genetic studies suggest that they first appeared on the Tibetan plateau, where the greatest variety still exists. But they have spread around the Northern Hemisphere and into South America.

They are social insects. While honeybees may congregate in insect cities of 100,000 bees or more, bumblebees live in the equivalent of small towns, with colonies of 50 to a few hundred.

Almost all bumblebee colonies last just one season. As cold weather approaches, female workers, the queen and male drones die. Only fertile females that have mated — queens in waiting — seek refuges under the tundra, sometimes in old mouse burrows, where they outlast the winter in a state of torpor. In the spring, they emerge to start the whole cycle over.

Bumblebees are the only bees that live in the high Arctic. They have adapted to the darkness and cold of wintertime that dips to 60 below zero and then to the explosion of growth and pollination under summer’s midnight sun.

And that’s why the bee hunter caravan is on the Dalton Highway.

Some changes to the climate are already obvious. Willows are taking advantage of a milder climate to spread north to areas where only the low-lying plants and lichens of the tundra had lived before. Moose follow the march of the willows.

Other changes will come. For instance, new species of bees may arrive to compete with species that adapted to the old conditions. Some bumblebee populations in more temperate regions are already suffering, partly because of climate change. In September, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service proposed listing the once common rusty patched bumblebee as endangered.

And there are gaps in the knowledge of Arctic bees that need to be filled. The group on this expedition wants to help build up information on current populations and behavior against which to measure change.

One bee dominates the hunts, and the conversation. It is Bombus polaris, the Arctic bumblebee. Other bumblebees live in the Arctic, but polaris survives closer to the North Pole than any other bee except a parasitic species that creates no nests and breeds no workers, laying its eggs in polaris nests. Polaris hasn’t been studied that much since Bernd Heinrich examined its physiology in the 1990s. For Woodard, Bombus polaris is the trophy bee.

It has adapted so well to the cold that by shivering its muscles it can raise its internal temperature to more than 95 degrees when it is 32 outside. It lives around the world, in the northern reaches of Ellesmere Island in the Canadian high Arctic, and in Greenland.

It doesn’t just stay warm enough to fly. Heinrich suggested in his research that a spring queen warms up her ovaries to jump-start the production of eggs to be fertilized with sperm stored in her body since the previous fall.

But by the end of the day at the Chandalar Shelf, no one has yet found a bee they can identify as polaris.

That night, we camp at a gravel pit where pipes and other material for the pipeline are stored. Each captured bee is in a plastic tube, and Duennes first gases them with a can of compressed air from a grocery store. Compressed air, she explains, is not just air. This kind contains difluoroethane, which stuns the bees.

She removes the guts to study later for bacteria and viruses they may harboring, and places them in a solution that preserves them for genetic study. The bee bodies go into ethanol.

As she works, she recounts some of the day’s events, including one bee that she thought might be a polaris, but turned out not to be. She wanted to make sure she caught it, so she grabbed it through the net to make sure it didn’t escape. She thought, “I don’t care if it stings me. But then it did. And then I was like, ‘Ow, ow, no, I do care.”

Arctic ‘Luxury’

The next day, we arrive at an oasis of luxury, the Toolik Field Station, an Arctic research base run by the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

The station is a remote scientific outpost dotted with soft-sided dormitories shaped like Quonset huts, outhouses on stilts and labs in rectangular modular buildings. Showers, while hot, are limited to two per week, maximum two minutes each.

The cafeteria provides unlimited do-it-yourself sandwiches, coffee, snacks and ice cream. The regular meals are hearty and delicious. There are no mosquitoes in the cafeteria, so we don’t have to solve the problem of how to lift a mosquito net over our heads to get food into our mouths. The station also has a sauna, set on the shore of icy Toolik Lake. It is clothing optional, we are told during orientation, with men’s, women’s and late evening coed hours.

But with the luxury, the bees disappear. For two days, we try sites in and around the station. Here and there someone finds a bee, but they seem to have mostly disappeared.

Other scientists at Toolik say that earlier in the year several large snowstorms, with warming spells in between, wiped out nesting attempts by migrating birds, drowning the nests and freezing chicks and eggs. Something similar may have happened to the bees.

But on July 4, I watch as Duennes identifies the first Bombus polaris. Once the trip is over, and the researchers do genetic testing at the University of California, Riverside, they will realize that they found more than 40 Bombus polaris bees along the way, but they don’t yet know that.

The first Bombus polaris bee is a gift. A researcher who has been using fine mesh nets to capture birds has also caught a number of bees by accident. She gladly turns over two dozen or so.

The bees have been in a cardboard box, and their hairs have become matted, making it impossible to see the color markings that identify them. Duennes and Watrous set up a bee-fluffing salon in a back room of the station’s recreation building.

In another room, Woodard and the three other professors plot the grant application that will grow out of this trip, a pursuit of Bombus polaris they hope will take some of them to Greenland and to Ellesmere Island.

First the bee dressers wash the bees with soap and water. Then they rinse them and wash the bees in ethanol. They dry the bees with paper towels and tease the hairs apart with corners of paper towel.

I admire the transformation, and Duennes holds up one of the restored bees and says, in a cartoon voice, “I feel like a whole new bee!”

Bumblebees come in many color combinations of yellow, brown, black and red, and only experts can tell one species from another. In some cases, only a microscopic examination of the male genitalia or DNA analysis can provide a definitive identification.

But one restored bee has telltale dark color in a yellow patch on its side. Duennes and Watrous compared it to illustrations in a guidebook. They won’t say what they think until they bring Woodard in to examine the bee.

While waiting for Duennes to set up lines of bees for her impromptu Bombus test, I take advantage of the downtime to play foosball with Diez. He crushes me, and keeps bringing up this ignominy for the rest of the trip.

Even though the long road to Prudhoe Bay is ahead, and a longer road back, when Woodard picks the right bee out of the lineup, Duennes is exultant.

“I am almost certain that’s polaris!”

After scrupulously considering every possible objection to the identification, everyone in the group raises a glass to Duennes’s toast: “Extreme bees, extreme people.”