Friday, April 27, 2018

A Rainbow of Bees

It’s been a long, snowy winter, but when a rainbow of bees invaded the Museum yesterday it started to feel a little bit like spring!  The bees aren’t living of course; they are larger-than-life photographs that make our exhibit hall feel alive. We owe big thanks to Sam Droege at the USGS Native Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab who has taken all of these photos and made them available to the public.

My favorite portrait is a close-up of a metallic green sweat bee. Her iridescent green head fills the canvas, and all five of her eyes (two big and three small) seem to stare right at you. A halo of golden-brown hair bristles expectantly on what you can see of her chin, back, and legs, as if waiting for a dusting of pollen to land. Some of my coworkers and volunteers have expressed a little aversion to this unusual view of a bee, but I’m captivated by shimmering shades of green. Its scientific name (Augochlorella aurata), means small, green, and gilded. Perfect.

We chose six native bees to highlight in our upcoming “Bee Amazed” exhibit, and they are equally fascinating in their own ways. The fuzzy-legged leafcutter bee lives up to its name because even males of that species have hairy legs. Megachile melanophea uses his furry appendages to cover the eyes of a female while they are mating. Scientists aren’t sure why, but I suspect the hairs may carry pheromones that make her feel more romantic. Male bees typically don’t have pollen-gathering hairs on their legs because they don’t need to gather pollen to provision a nest.

Have you ever encountered a fuzzy orange teddy bear? That’s what the orange-belted bumble bee reminds me of. The plump, thickly furred bodies of bumble bees allow them to retain heat better than smaller smoother bees. Last week I wrote about bumble bees detaching their flight muscles and vibrating in order to shake the pollen out of certain flowers. In a similar process, bumble bees can use their unhinged muscles to shiver and warm up. With the ability to produce and retain heat, bumble bees are the champion pollinators of early spring and cool morning pollinations.

Right now the new bumble bee queens—fertilized last fall—are tucked away in the subnivean zone waiting for the snow to melt. When they emerge in the spring, the queens are on their own for at least 5 weeks, until the eggs they lay become their hardworking colony. Our native bumble bees tend to house their colonies in abandoned mouse nests or other underground burrows. The burrows are sheltered from the weather and pre-insulated with grass, thistle-down, and mouse fur.

In a corner of the exhibit hall we’ve built a human-scale bumble bee nest. Numerous “bee pods” (as we affectionately named them as they were being built in our office area) hold bee eggs, larvae, honey, and pollen. We’ve already confirmed that kids love helping the bumble bee queen move resources around in her nest.

Many other types of native bees are solitary and don’t form colonies at all, and their nesting styles are also illustrated nearby.

If green and orange seem like odd colors for bees, our giant photo of the blue orchard mason bee will be an even bigger surprise. Bees can be blue? Well, they’re blue as much as a bluebird or a blue jay is blue, which means only in certain light. Their base color is brown, but the structures of their cells cause light to bounce around and return to our eyes in shimmering shades of cobalt. Like the metallic green sweat bee, a halo of brown hairs stand ready to gather pollen.

The hairy-banded mining bee in the photo next-door must have already been out foraging. Tiny grains of pollen stick to its fuzzy face and shoulders like a sprinkling of fairy dust. What this photo doesn’t show is that the main work of pollen collecting for bees in this genus—Andrena—Is actually done by hairs positioned high on their hind legs, giving the impression that the pollen is in their armpits. This species of mining bee develops underground all summer, and only emerges in mid-August when their favorite flowers—black-eyed Susans, coreopsis, goldenrod, and other members of the Aster family—bloom.

The final glamour shot of our six chosen bees is of the two-spotted longhorn bee. The longhorn in its name derives from long antennas, and it does have two spots on the tip of its abdomen. Photographed in profile, this dark brown and black bee looks almost like a new alien species of a galloping horse. What endears me to this bee isn’t its appearance, but the fact that it’s an important pollinator of pumpkins, watermelons, and cucumbers.

Spring is coming! I hope you’ll visit our new exhibit “Bee Amazed!” at the Cable Natural History Museum after it opens on May 1. I know you’ll be amazed by the beauty and diversity of our native bees.

Special Note: Emily’s book, Natural Connections: Exploring Northwoods Nature through Science and Your Senses is here! Order your copy at

For 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! Our new exhibit: “Bee Amazed!” opens on May 1, 2018.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Hard Crust on the Snow Moon

Getting over the ridge of icy snow left by the plow was my first challenge. I watched a couple of my companions try it, then picked my line and sidestepped up. The ridge only came up to my shoulder, but I still got a thrill out of choosing my own way to enter the woods instead of sticking to the hiking trail at the opposite end of the parking area. Although still within sight of the road, a sense of adventure crackled among the group. Reaching the crest, I aimed my skis at an open line through the forest and gave a good push with my poles.

Pure white snowdrifts graciously supported my skis as I swooped down the smooth, undulating slope. The close hug of trees gave both a sense of intimacy and speed that’s hard to find on the wide, groomed ski trails I’ve been frequenting all winter.

This is a magical time of year. Oh, I know, most people are yearning for spring, shaking their fists at each new Winter Storm Watch, and eyeing their summer clothes wistfully. There’s a small part of me doing those things, too. Then I start looking at maps for new places to explore. In the Ojibwa calendar, the full moon in March is named “Hard Crust on the Snow Moon,” and for good reason. This firm crust paves a smooth route in to swamps, bogs, and all the most unwalkable, unpaddleable, unreachable parts of our landscape. A journey that might require hip waders, a canoe, hiking boots, head net, and bug spray in summer is now perfectly suited for cross country skis. The ticks are covered and the mosquitoes are hiding. Now is the time for grand adventures.

It’s taken all winter for the world to be thus transformed. The process began with the tumbling path of each lacey snowflake. Frail points were broken off, water molecules reorganized, and a rounded ice grain emerged. Swirling winds facilitated the process. Burial under more snow compressed underlying kernels. As the snowpack settled, individual grains fused to their neighbors and squeezed out air pockets. The once-fluffy snow increased in strength and density.

Inside the snowpack, sublimation (the conversion of ice directly to water vapor) filled any remaining pore spaces with 100 percent humidity. Water vapor rose upward—partly driven by the temperature gradient between relatively warm earth below, and colder air above. When it reached cooler spaces nearer the surface, water vapor condensed back into ice. This lowered the concentration of water vapor near the surface of the snowand pulled more vapor upward from below.

As a result of this upward migration, ice crystals near the ground shrunk, and a complex network of airspaces and tunnels formed in the subnivean zone. Mice, voles, weasels, spiders, ticks, fungi, bacteria, and other critters thrive in this unseen world. Higher in the snowpack—which also means closer to frigid air temperatures—condensing water vapor locked ice crystals together even more securely.

For several weeks now, spring sunshine and warm days have altered and compacted the once-fluffy snowpack even more, while cold nights have re-solidified it into a firm structure that can easily support the weight of an adult human.

The day of our adventure was a perfect example. The thermometer read one degree above zero when we got out of bed. The official weather station in Hayward, Wisconsin, recorded a nighttime low of two below zero, which set a new record for the eighth of April. A year ago on this day we set a record high temperature of 73 degrees, and I wrote about yellow-rumped warblers, loons, emerging plants, and one loudly calling spring peeper in my phenology journal.

Despite the chilly start, bright sun soon warmed our day to well above freezing.
The pussy willows looked like they'd paused in the middle of opening.

Hardly even a chickadee stirred on that record-cold morning, but we were looking for bigger birds this year. Our guide had happened upon a heron rookery on a previous excursion, and now we set out to discover it again. The crust paved our way through a string of bogs, beaver ponds, and thickets of hazel and alder brush. The joyful, sliding tracks of otters etched designs across every surface. They must love this season, too. Finally, we skied switchbacks through the trees down into a wide basin. The weathered trunks of a ghost forest—drowned by a beaver dam, no doubt—etched gnarled silhouettes on the bluebird sky. This was it, proclaimed our guide, as we skimmed over sparkling drifts toward the other end.

We counted 21 twiggy nests perched in the tops and crooks of those contorted old trees. As hunters, great blue herons are solitary; masters of invisibility as they stand or stalk silently through the shallows. But great blue herons are gregarious nesters, and seek safety in numbers. Their raucous colonies average over one hundred nests, with four times that many eyes watching for danger.

The rookery was empty and silent today, though. The open water that surrounds the trees like a moat to protect them from mammalian predators was frozen solid, and bobcat tracks stitched lines across the drifts. It’s no accident that the herons chose a remote location with difficult access. They don’t respond well to human disturbance. By the time lakes open and the owners of these nests return, the landscape will be an almost impenetrable jungle of brush, mud, soggy bogs, and open water. Once the beaver pond thaws, we certainly wouldn’t be able to stand directly beneath the nests and gaze up—mouths open—at the Dr. Seuss-like structures above. Just for this one magical season is this particular adventure possible. It’s a lovely pause on the bigger journey that will inevitably, eventually, become spring.

Special Note: Emily’s book, Natural Connections: Exploring Northwoods Nature through Science and Your Senses is here! Order your copy at

For 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! Our new exhibit: “Bee Amazed!” opens on May 1, 2018.

Friday, April 13, 2018

My Brain is Buzzing...

While white snow swirls outside my window, a cloud of yellow floats inside my head. My brain is buzzing with facts about pollen and bees, as all of my coworkers and a merry band of volunteers put the final touches on our new exhibit: Bee Amazed!

The original vision for an exhibit on bees came from one of our dedicated volunteers. She imagined a room draped in golden, honey-colored cloth, with hexagons everywhere, and an observation hive of honey bees busily buzzing away in a corner. Like most of us, she was focused on the highly visible, newsworthy, honey bee. But honey bees aren’t native to North America. Because of the value of their honey and wax, they were brought here very early in the process of European colonization. Some escaped and started living in the wild, but most of them remain under the care of humans in our backyards, small farms, and in our system of industrialized agriculture.

I knew that the exhibit would need to focus a little bit more on our native bees, in order to fulfill the Museum’s mission of connecting people to Northwoods nature, so I contacted Heather Holm. Heather’s first book, Pollinators of Native Plants, is one we’ve used as a resource during the planting of our rain gardens and pollinator gardens here at the Museum. Her second, award-winning book, Bee: An Identification and Native Plant Forage Guide, is a wealth of information, and has been very useful in organizing information for our exhibit.

Heather agreed to be an expert consultant on our exhibit, and a grant from the Four Cedars Environmental Fund of the Duluth Superior Area Community Foundation made it possible.

My first conversation with Heather turned our exhibit on its head. Honey bees, she told us, can actually compete with native bees for resources. Honey bee workers travel two miles or more from their hive to gather nectar and pollen, and they visit a wide variety of flowers. Most of our native bees are single, working mothers who will try to forage as close to their nests as possible, which may mean only flying tens of feet away. A typical hive of honey bees can gather the equivalent amount of food that 100,000 solitary bees would need over the course of the summer.

This information was shocking to me and the rest of our exhibit development committee, especially since most of the hype (up until very recently) has been about colony collapse disorder and the plight of honey bees. Honey bees are a necessary component of our industrial, monoculture-based agricultural system, and I do love honey, but native bees are integral to the thriving of our global ecosystems. About 90 percent of flowering plants need animals to pollinate them, and that includes about one-third of our food crops. While hummingbirds, bats, butterflies, moths, and other insects pollinate some flowers, bees are the real champions of pollination.

Metallic green sweat bees are one of many beautiful, effective, native pollinators who play an important role in the health of our Northwoods ecosystem. Photo by Heather Holm.

What makes native bees so effective? It all comes down to pollen. Bees are more focused than any other pollinator on collecting pollen. Pollen is the male reproductive cell of a flower, and in order to fertilize the ovule and produce a viable seed, it needs to land on the stigma of another flower of the same species. Pollen is also a rich source of protein, so native bees have evolved elaborate systems of branched hairs, electrical charges, and special stomachs to help them transport pollen back to their nests. Once there, the female bee mixes the pollen with nectar and saliva to create “bee bread.” This organic baby food will be stored with each new egg to feed the larva once it hatches.

In this symbiotic relationship between bees and flowers—honed over 125 million years—it’s no accident that the pollen-carrying adaptations of native bees are somewhat messy. It is absolutely essential that dusty little poofs of pollen shake off at each new flower. Honey bees are more interested in collecting nectar than pollen, and when they do collect pollen, they mix it with nectar and store it in pollen baskets on their legs. This minimizes pollen lost along the way, but also reduces their usefulness to the plant. 

Some of our native bees, including bumble bees, mining bees, sweat bees, and carpenter bees, use an even messier form of pollen collection known as “buzz pollination.” By grasping a flower, detaching their flight muscles from their wings, and buzzing loudly, these bees shake the pollen out of the flower. Some flowers—including human favorites like tomatoes, eggplants, cranberries, and blueberries—need this technique for effective pollination. Honey bees are inefficient, if not ineffective, at pollinating these flowers.
This is only the beginning of what I’ve discovered. Native bees are bigger, smaller, hairier, shinier, and more colorful than I ever imagined. A rainbow of bees is hard at work in the Northwoods. I hope you’ll visit “Bee Amazed!” at the Cable Natural History Museum after it opens on May 1. I know you’ll be just as amazed by the beauty and diversity of our native bees as I am.

Special Note: Emily’s book, Natural Connections: Exploring Northwoods Nature through Science and Your Senses is here! Order your copy at

For 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! Our new exhibit: “Bee Amazed!” opens on May 1, 2018.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Adventure: Alaska!

Ever since my first trip to the Boundary Waters when I was 16, I’ve been aiming north. I grew up in the hills of Northeast Iowa, and spent my childhood envisioning cornfields as the prairies of Laura Ingalls Wilder. But as we drove up the Gunflint Trail and paddled deep into the Wilderness, the gnarled elegance of evergreens, the austerity of bedrock, and the connectivity of water captured my imagination instead.

When choosing a college, I went north to Lake Superior. And when looking for both jobs and adventures, I’ve mainly stayed in the northern tier of states, working in northern California, Maine, Wyoming, and Minnesota. (Southeast Utah is an exception that proves the rule: it is heavily populated by both evergreens and bedrock.) Cable, Wisconsin, where I landed after graduate school in Vermont, is a happy compromise between the Boundary Waters and my family in Iowa.

The north has been good to me. Yesterday I went for a spin on my road bike. Today I skate skied around a frozen bog on firm crust. I’ve been a naturalist at the Cable Natural History Museum for seven years. I have a garden, a community, and a great job. But I also have a little bit of that old wanderlust, and a pull to go north. In all my years of travel as a seasonal naturalist, I never made it to Alaska. My parents have been there. Friends have been there. And they all tell me I’d love it. But I can’t imagine spending just a two-week vacation there. Alaska is huge.

My parents visited Alaska both pre-kids and as empty-nesters. We had great family vacations, but never to Alaska. In 1976, my dad to this photo of the Mendenhall Glacier near Juneau, Alaska. Photo by Larry Stone. 

So, after seven years, it’s time for a sabbatical. I’ll be spending the entire summer in Alaska: June through August, with two weeks on each end for driving there and back. My original plan was to get a job as a field tech at one of the ecological research stations up there. I wanted to gain more experience doing science. I am constantly learning and sharing facts that scientists have discovered. I want to have a better idea of how they conduct their research. 

But all the jobs needed me to start in April or May. Plan B is potentially even more exciting. I’ll be spending the summer traveling throughout Alaska (Where? Everywhere!) as a science journalist. I’ve already convinced a couple scientists that they should let me tag along on their work to learn about what they do, and then write about their research. I want to tell the stories of science. So I will tell them through this Natural Connections column and my blog, which you can find a link to at

One adventure will be a road trip to Valdez, to hire a local fishing boat to help us fill a few large jugs with seawater. Back in the lab at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, we’ll run tests to determine how well natural populations of bacteria are doing at breaking down oil from the Exxon Valdez oil spill that occurred in Prince William Sound in 1989. I was only seven years old, but I still remember the television coverage.

On a happier note, I’ll tag along with another researcher as she picks blueberries and studies “the influence of foods from traditional and subsistence lifestyles on specific cellular signaling pathways and overall health and aging.”

Another destination I have in mind is the Bonanza Creek LTER near Fairbanks. The Long Term Ecological Research Network (LTER) consists of over 1,800 scientists and students studying ecological processes for many years over large areas. Twenty-six LTER sites cover a diverse set of ecosystems. This particular site is focused on the boreal forest, with studies on permafrost, fire, moose hunting, and much more. The guiding question of all their research is: “How is the BOREAL [my emphasis] biome responding to climate change and what are the local, regional, and global impacts of those responses?”

“Boreal.” It’s one of my favorite words. It means “of the north or northern regions.” I can’t wait to learn more about the boreal forest. I’ve already started reading up. Did you know that much of interior Alaska was not glaciated, and is covered by loess, and that those are two characteristics it shares with Iowa? Did you know that a creature exists called an ice worm that lives near the surface of glaciers? Did you know that black spruce—our wet-footed neighbor in bogs—is fire tolerant in Alaska? By learning more about the ecology of Alaska, I think I’ll understand the ecology of Wisconsin better, too.

My tentative launch date for this trip is May 15. I’ll head south to see family before going north again to visit Idaho (another state I’ve never been to,) and catch the car ferry in Bellingham, Washington, for a voyage up the Inside Passage. I’ll be writing about my adventures along the way. I hope you’ll follow along! And yes, I will return. My projected arrival back home is mid-September.

Very few of my plans have settled into dates yet, and I’m still looking for more adventures. If you have ideas for scientists to visit, can’t-miss attractions or hikes, or kind people with soft couches, warm showers, and laundry facilities, I’d be happy to hear about them!

To the north!

My parents saw this bighorn sheep on their most recent trip to Alaska…without me. Photo by Larry Stone. 

Special Note: Emily’s book, Natural Connections: Exploring Northwoods Nature through Science and Your Senses is here! Order your copy at

For 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! Our new exhibit: “Bee Amazed!” opens on May 1, 2018.