Graduate student Katie Burns tells us about her adventures in field research and the importance of pollinators in our environment during this Pulsar podcast brought to you by #MOSatHome. We ask questions submitted by listeners, so if you have a question you'd like us to ask an expert, send it to us at sciencequestions@mos.org.

Don’t miss an episode – subscribe to Pulsar on Apple Podcasts or Spotify today!

Podbean URL


KATIE: And I didn't close the door fast enough, so one of their guard bees flew out, and I got a coward's wound. I got a sting on the back of my shoulder because I was running away. But again, it was just overconfidence on my part. But if you're slow, you're steady, you don't get stung.

PABLO: Today on Pulsar, we talk to pollinator scientist Katie Burns about her fieldwork and the importance of the insects that she studies. I'm your host, Pablo. Katie, can you please introduce yourself?

KATIE: Sure. I'm Katie Burns. I'm a PhD researcher at University College Dublin. And I am very passionate about pollinators and pollinator conservation, and I love studying them.

PABLO: Can you walk me through a day in the life of a pollinator scientist?

KATIE: Absolutely. So my day really varies, depending on the time of year and what stage I'm in my project. So in the spring and the summer, you can find me outside with a net in hand, chasing bees and other pollinators, and counting flowers.

But then when you get more into the autumn and winter months, that's when I focus mostly on data analysis and writing. So that's where I'm at right now.

So for example, today, I came into work, and I had a meeting with one of my friends who's much better at stats than I am. And she helped me do all of my analysis. And then I spent the rest of the day editing one of my thesis chapters so doing a lot of writing.

And now I'm here with you. So it very much varies, depending on the time of year.

PABLO: OK, so you arrived at your field site, you got your net in one hand, you catch a bee. What happens next?

KATIE: So say if I want to collect pollen off of a bee's leg because I want to see what flowers it visited that day - so I want to be able to count the pollen grains later - I'll catch the bee, I'll put it into a vial very carefully, and then put it into a cooler where I have ice packs.

And what the bee does is because it's cold, its body systems will begin to slow down. I obviously don't want to kill the bee if I don't have to, though that is sometimes required if you need to get more precise identification data.

But I just want them to go to sleep, basically. I want them to think winter has come early.

And once they have fallen asleep, I'll take them out, I'll put them on a little Petri dish, I'll use very soft forceps - so like little tweezers - to gently scrape the pollen off, put that in a separate vial.

And then I'll put the bee on a rock or something to warm up, and then they fly away. And honestly, people will see me do this - doesn't that hurt the bee? They go right back to foraging. They're totally fine. No worse for wear, just missing a pollen load.

PABLO: Oh, that's great. So for the most part, no bees are harmed in your research. But what about you? Don't you get stung by bees?

KATIE: So no. I've only been stung twice on the job, and I've been doing this now for close to seven years. And both times, it was completely my fault.

So bees, when they're foraging - so when they're visiting flowers - they have no interest in you whatsoever. You're not threatening them, even if you get close to them. I always call bees pretty sassy.

They like to get up in your face, and they'll maybe do a little zigzag, and then they'll fly away, just letting you know, like, you got too close.

When I catch them, they're definitely mad. But if you're careful, and you just make sure you keep an eye on the bee in the net, the chances of getting stung are very low.

One of the times I got stung, I lost the bee in the net. And instead of just turning the net inside out, I was like, no, I'm going to find this bee. And then, of course, I got stung. So that was overconfidence on my part.

PABLO: And why should we care about pollinators?

KATIE: Pollinators in general are just integral to our survival. They pollinate almost 90% of our wildflowers, they pollinate about 75% of our leading food crops, which contributes to about 1 in 3 bites of food. So we really need these guys.

And in terms of native pollinators, native pollinators are uniquely evolved to their habitats and their ecosystems.

So there are very specific relationships between these native pollinators and native plants in terms of pollination and plant reproduction, which is not only good for the plant and for the pollinator, but also good for the animals that might feed on the nuts and fruits that come from those plants.

So overall, native pollinators are really important for supporting ecosystem health.

And then in terms of our crops, we all know about honeybees, I think, as the main crop pollinator. They're the ones that are most talked about. But honeybees aren't necessarily always the most efficient pollinator for certain types of crops.

In fact, sometimes it's not even a bee. Sometimes it's a fly, or a beetle, or a moth that's the most important. So there's this general idea that maybe one pollinator to rule them all, but we really do need this diversity if we want the most efficient pollination.

PABLO: Is there an example of a pollinator that is particularly important for a crop?

KATIE: So cocoa plants are pollinated almost exclusively by tiny biting flies. And the reason they need these tiny biting flies is because the flowers are just very small, but the pollen is hidden in these little hoods on the flower.

So a honeybee, or even like a solitary bee, which are pretty small, also, they couldn't really get to it. So they really need these almost microscopic little flies to dig in there, get covered in pollen, and then fly to the next flower.

PABLO: Well, I do love chocolate. But when people think about pollinators, and particularly, the decline of pollinators around the world, they're not thinking about mites. Instead, they're thinking about honeybees. Are these two groups of pollinators facing the same issues?

KATIE: So honeybees are a completely different game to native pollinators. Honeybees are kept primarily by people, so they're a managed pollinator.

So instead of thinking of honeybees as being a wild ranging pollinator, I think it's better to think of them more as livestock because that's really what they are. They're managed by humans. And that doesn't make them bad or anything like that, but it's a very different conservation issue.

So when we talk about things like colony collapse disorder, which is a huge buzzword in the news, this is more of an issue for beekeepers and for crop pollination.

But I think that when that's all the information people are getting, it can cause some really misinformation about what we need to do to help pollinators in general. I've heard from so many people saying, oh I really want to save the bees. I'm going to get a hive.

But it's kind of like saying chickens are going extinct. Like, you wouldn't want to buy more chickens to save birds in general, same as you wouldn't want to just buy more honeybees to save bees in general.

So my recommendation is actually to, one, not do that, but two, just increase the amount of native wildflowers in your backyard to reduce pesticide use, which will not only help honeybees that might be in your neighborhood, but will also help native pollinators.

PABLO: That's great because it brings me to my last question. What can people do to help native pollinators in their community?

KATIE: I'm going to elaborate more on the plants and pesticides because I think, especially, when I say pesticides, people are like, I don't use those. That's a problem for farmers.

And I'm like, if you've ever used weed killer, that is a pesticide. If you've ever used a fungicide on your tomatoes in your garden, that's a pesticide.

The other big one is, don't mow. Let it grow. I really want everyone to embrace fluffier yards, or messier-looking yards.

I know you might get weird looks from your neighbors, but you're really helping the pollinators so much, especially dandelions in spring are so helpful for early-emerging pollinators who don't have that much to eat.

If you're a gardener and really want to go all out and plant flowers, I would recommend planting native wildflowers instead of exotic flowers. One resource that I recommend all the time is the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation.

They have amazing regional-plant lists for the United States that you can go and look at and figure out what plants are native to your specific range and how to specifically help your pollinator neighbors.

Another big one is leaving the leaves. I think a lot of us associate pollinators with flowers, and in the summer, and they're flying around. But we don't really think about where they go in the wintertime.

And a lot of pollinators rely on leaf cover to protect them through the winter months, especially in New England, where it's very, very cold.

Bumblebees will hibernate about an inch under the soil. So that extra layer of leaves is really important for keeping them alive over the winter.

So what I recommend, if you really want to clear off your yard, is just to rake to the sides of the yard, or you can bring them to maybe a compost pile or two if you have a backwoods behind your house or something. Or have a neighbor with backwoods bring them there.

PABLO: Well, Katie, thank you so much.

KATIE: Thank you. This was great.

PABLO: And thank you to all of our listeners. If you have any science-related questions, please email us at sciencequestions@mos.org.

Until next time, keep asking questions.

Theme song by Destin Heilman