Bees are among the most frequently studied animals, and yet there remains a vast amount of knowledge to be gained about these important pollinators. In this exclusive interview, Kiley Friedrich from the Gratton Lab and Agroecology Master’s program at UW-Madison discusses her research on wild bees and their interactions with native plant communities.
AW: Your thesis work examines the relationships between plant communities and wild bee populations. How did you become interested in this topic?
KF: I think my interest in pollination started, essentially, from my family’s orchard operation. Understanding how important bees are to the function and success of that apple orchard system was really inspiring and definitely intrigued that curiosity in me to examine the plants around us and see who is hanging out where, and why. I think my love for entomology definitely stemmed from a natural land ethic that had already been established in my family.
AW: You mention the land ethic — has Aldo Leopold and growing up in Wisconsin had an influence on how you think about ecology research?
KF: As a University of Wisconsin-Madison student, absolutely! We very much hold Aldo Leopold’s work with the highest and utmost respect here. It was not as influential in my early days growing up, but definitely more so when I started to form my own research questions and understanding of how ecosystems function both naturally and when manipulated. A Sand County Almanac is still one of the more peaceful readings I’ve ever had the privilege to read… As an Aldo Leopold Leadership Scholar, I have been really fortunate to visit the Foundation and see all of the work they do on behalf of the Leopold family’s mission and how [Aldo Leopold’s] legacy here in Wisconsin has been lasting throughout the years because of the work of all of those people.
AW: Very cool. So you started off your early days as a young person observing bees in the wild, what are some of the ways that scientific researchers use professional methods to study bees?
KF: From a biological standpoint, we have a certain number of important ways we can measure bees’ impact and effect within a landscape, but observation is still always one of the best and most informative modes of [gathering] scientific information, and I think that’s one of my favorite parts of our job. Fieldwork is far and away one of my favorite reasons I do what I do. Being in contact with nature and in contact with the natural history of these organisms is really, really special.
AW: So your study was largely fieldwork oriented, how did you design your study and what were you hoping to find with your study design?
KF: We were lucky enough to work with some of our partners, including a grassland management organization and a conservation organization, under a USDA-funded Conservation Innovation Grant. So in an effort to start inspiring practitioners to use more innovative and creative land management practices, we were able to work within a system that is multi-beneficial through the production of bio-energy crops and the implementation of conservation habitat, we can have this multifunctional perennial landscape that serves many purposes. In my study design, I was looking at how best to capture the communities that exist within that landscape.
AW: What would you say were the key findings of your research?
KF: I think that by understanding the diversity of plant communities, we can begin to understand which pollinator communities best interact with these landscapes. A particular focus on plant diversity allows us to see those intimate interactions a lot more clearly, and can inform land managers better into the future.
AW: Now I’ve got some more personal questions.
KF: Ok, great.
AW: What makes bees so fascinating to you? Is there a particular thing about them that makes you super excited?
KF: I think just the diversity that exists within the families of bees. They range from these big, beautiful, furry bumblebees to these amazing iridescent green metallics, to [bees with] really fantastic architecture and anatomical features for leaf cutting and building and constructing all of these homes and shapes. They’re just incredibly interesting in the variety and diversity that exists within these tiny little organisms. They’re amazing!
AW: That was very poetic. I can tell that you really love bees, but I was also wondering, how many times have you been stung by a bee?
KF: I stopped counting! Laughs.
AW: Is there a particularly memorable incident of being stung by a bee that comes to mind?
KF: Because I work within wild and native pollinator settings, we often come upon these tiny little sweat bees that have no interest you other than to drink your tiny little sweat beads.
KF: They’re adorable! Except when they’re in mass and they’ve found all of the sweat that’s dripping down your face during a field day. And it just feels — they’re only slightly a nuisance — but it can be one of those frustrating, ‘I don’t understand where you’re coming from!’ situations, where like, ‘you’re so small, and you’re in my shirt, and I just can’t get rid of you!’
AW: So in that case, you’re like, ‘I need some space, bees’.
KF: Yeah! ‘I love you, but you’re hurting me’.
AW: What are your feelings about Bee Movie?
KF: I’ve never seen it.
AW: You’ve never seen Bee Movie?!
KF: I have never seen the Jerry Seinfeld Bee Movie.
AW: Do you feel like it would be, maybe frustrating to watch Bee Movie because of all the inaccuracies that sometimes the general public perceives about bees?
KF: Are there many inaccuracies in the movie?
AW: I haven’t seen it either. I just felt like I had to ask.
KF: I think, just from a researcher’s standpoint, there are a lot of misconceptions about bees and their contribution to both human health and ecosystem services, but I think with the increased popularity, or, volume of conversation about bees in popular media, the public is gaining a better understanding of what they do and how important they are. And I think, expanding that conversation beyond honeybees and into natural and wild pollinators will be that next step of getting everyone on the same page and squashing some of those inaccuracies.
AW: OK last question — What can the general public do to help bees, and can just anybody help make a difference in helping our native pollinators?
KF: Absolutey. First and foremost, creating suitable habitat for these wild and native polinators that don’t require any management — it’s one of the most important things we can offer. Arable land for stem and ground nesting bees that need nesting cavities to provision for their brood, provision for that next generation is important. By creating habitat, we are also doing an amazing aesthetic bonus to the landscape. More flowers in your yard wouldn’t hurt either! But yeah, I think a sensitivity to habitat requirements are some of the easiest ways folks can get involved in pollinator conservation.
AW: Ok well, thank you for stopping by for the interview!
KF: Laughs. Oh, come on! There’s no other good personal questions?
AW: Oh do you want me to ask you more questions?
AW: What should I… umm… what’s your favorite fieldwork story that you like to tell?
KF: [My field assistant] Jade and I fell in a hole once. Driving through one of these big switch grass fields, we accidentally came upon a pretty deep divot. Well it was a trench. It was like 5 feet deep and probably 3 or 4 feet wide.
AW: And you were walking or driving?
KF: Driving. And we drove the truck into it. Laughs.
AW: How did you get it out? You had to call a tow truck?
KF: No, we wouldn’t have been able to because we would have had to call the farmer to grab the tractor to pull us out of the hole. And after some strategic maneuvering of our 4-wheel drive, I was able to right the truck to an upright position. At nightfall. It was like 8:45, or no… it was like already after 9pm and we were wrapping up a really, really long field day and we fell into a hole… it was like acres and acres of switch grass around us, and not being able to see the field ahead of us was one of the more novice mistakes I’ve made. There were two wheels off the ground. It was bad.
AW: So in addition to receiving your Master’s degree, are you interested in a career as a stunt driver?
KF: Laughs. I feel like I’d probably have to move to Hollywood for that. And I like the Midwest.
AW: That’s a good answer. Sounds like a variety of skills are need for field research.
KF: It really puts your creativity to task. How good is your problem solving? How well can you get the task accomplished by making sure everybody is safe and comfortable and taken care of, while meeting the needs of your project? It takes a special kind of person and I think especially in our field where you can tend to focus your research into a lab setting, it’s kind of impossible when you’re doing ecological research. You need to interact with the outdoors, and you need to be okay doing that and take whatever comes at you, whether surprise ditches, accidental burnings or mowings of your field sites. You really have to be able to think on your feet.
AW: I think I’m gonna title this article “99 Problems but a Ditch Ain’t One”.
KF: Laughs. I don’ t know if Claudio [Gratton] would be OK with that.
We went in another direction for the title. To learn more about how you can help native pollinators, check out this article from Global Wildlife Conservation. You can also read more about Kiley and her work on her lab webpage.