Hunting Arctic Bumblebees
KRISTAL WATROUS (’04, BIOLOGY) got the buzz for bees during an entomology class at HSU. “I never even considered I could do a job that involves insects until I took that class. That was the most exciting thing to me.”
This past summer, she joined a crew of scientists on a 1,000-mile trek across the Alaskan Arctic Circle in search of Bombus polaris, the Arctic bumblebee. The trip, which was documented in a 2016 New York Times multimedia feature, was part of research by University of California, Riverside to measure the effects of climate change on bee populations in the far northern reaches, where bumblebees are the primary pollinators of important plant species.
Watrous got her graduate degree at Utah State University in pollination biology—a sort of mix between bugs and plants. She was especially interested in native bees and plants, and it was a good time to be in the field: “People were talking a lot about bee ecosystem services that bees provide,” Watrous says. In a world where industry and science are sometimes at odds, “bee researchers have done a good job of quantifying impacts in agricultural systems and wild systems, and take that information to lawmakers.”
After working as a lab technician at Penn State for several years, Watrous’ botanist husband (whom she met at Humboldt State) took a job teaching at Cal State Fullerton in 2015, and she found work managing Hollis Woodard’s new bee research lab at UC Riverside.
The Alaska trip is the first research in the Arctic Circle for the lab and asks new questions about bee populations in the region. It also has implications on other bee populations, like those in the much-closer-to-home Sierra Nevada Mountains.
Now, Watrous and the Riverside bee crew are back in Southern California, and back in the lab. She is currently examining the nutrition of bees from the Sierras to add to the growing body of knowledge about how a changing world affects bee populations. “We know that as agriculture intensifies, or as native landscapes are developed, the bees lose a lot of floral diversity they need to have a balanced diet. What happens if they lose an important floral resource in the landscape?”