Bumblebees and Biology at 12,000 Feet

Researcher on hillside

Bumblebees and Biology at 12,000 Feet

2019 Research on Pennsylvania Mountain

Emelyn Piotter and Maya Rayle

Working at an altitude of nearly 12,000 feet has its inherent challenges but even more so when you find yourself hauling 100 bee boxes (which are essentially bird houses but for bumblebees) up a steep and snowy mountain. Emelyn Piotter and Maya Rayle faced this challenge as their first task as research interns with the Mountain Area Land Trust (MALT) in June of 2019 while conducting research on MALT’s 92 acre property. The boxes were heavy and awkward and the snow in June was piled high with drifts of over 8 feet making access to their destination trying to say the least.

Emelyn Piotter a recent graduate of the University of Missouri, and Maya Rayle, a Harvard University rising sophomore, arrived in Fairplay, Colorado last June. The young women were anxious to get their work conducting and studying bee and pollinator field research started, continuing the tradition of more than 100 scientists before them who have been directing high-altitude research on the Pennsylvania Mountain Natural Area continuously since the 1970s.

Using a broken-down wheelbarrow complete with two flat tires, the girls developed a system to load 8 boxes at a time and laboriously heave and push their way around enormous snow piles and up a steep slope. From this point the creative women loaded the boxes onto sleds, securely fastened them with duck tape, donned their snow shoes and painstakingly hoisted the sleds up another steep incline to their final destination. For a few moments of joy, Maya and Emelyn sledded back down the mountain to repeat the process all over again.

Once the bee boxes were in place, the researchers spent the next two weeks assisting another graduate student monitor bee activity and taking note of what flowers were blooming in the area. Emelyn also helped analyze bumblebee acoustic data and got to learn the basics of a software program called “Audacity” that is used by researchers to study audio files. (Learn more about bumble bee acoustic research at Pennsylvania Mountain in Science magazine.)

Emelyn and Maya earnestly jumped into their research doing “tent experiments”. Every day they set up their tent with equipment and a variety of dandelions and patiently wait for bumblebees and bee flies to visit, meticulously recording their behaviors and interactions with the plants. Some days Maya and Emelyn sat for five to six hours just waiting for a bee to visit. A good day meant they might see 7 to 8 bees. The work at times was frustrating and they found it tedious to complete just one trial. Emelyn shares that “patience is learned in ecology.”

Emelyn and Maya not only loved their research, the beauty of the mountain and their colleagues, but they also fell in love with Fairplay. They signed up for weekly pottery classes in town, learned the culture of the community and made new friends they keep in touch with today.

Maya, an accomplished cross country and track runner took advantage of living above 10,000 feet and spent much of her free time training and getting into excellent physical shape. Always looking to push her limits, Maya learned that it was possible to mountain bike up a Fourteener, and in mid-July she successfully summitted Mt. Elbert!

After finishing their internship summer on Pennsylvania Mountain, the women have continued their educational pursuits. Emelyn returned to the lab at the University of Missouri and is working towards publishing a manuscript of her research on Bumblebees and Bee Flies and has been accepted into Graduate School at St. Louis University. Maya returned to Harvard for her sophomore year and declared her major in Integrative Biology. Maya believes that her experience on Pennsylvania Mountain has greatly influenced and guided her future course decisions.

While world events and the global health pandemic have temporarily interrupted Emelyn and Maya’s pursuits this spring, they continue to be very busy. Emelyn is living in Missouri and besides working on her manuscript she is managing a sheep herd, and is an avid gardener, growing hundreds of vegetable seedlings. Emelyn jokes, “If the world falls apart, I might be able to feed myself.”

Maya’s coursework at Harvard was cut short in early March when she moved back home to Hood River, Oregon and is busy finishing up her sophomore year online, while also continuing her cross country training and assisting with a research project on New Caledonian Crows.

MALT is grateful for the passion and commitment these young women bring to their research and educational pursuits and is fortunate to have had their expertise as interns.

Read Emelyn and Maya’s Field Notes from 2019 for more details about their work!

Together we’re saving the land and leaving a legacy.