Arctic Bumblebees


Superb science journalism:

Six Scientists, 1,000 Miles, One
Prize: The Arctic Bumblebee

A team of researchers scours 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.


DALTON HIGHWAY, Alaska — “To bees, time is honey.

— Bernd Heinrich, “Bumblebee Economics

Hollis and Bren Woodard capturing bees next to the Alaskan pipeline. Katie Orlinsky for The New York Times

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!”

Dr. Woodard, an assistant professor at the University of California, Riverside; her lab manager, Ms. 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.”…

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