Hi! My name is Elsa Godtfredsen and I am originally from Bainbridge Island, Washington but Colorado has been my home for almost 5 years. I graduated from Colorado College last May with a degree in Organismal Biology and Ecology and a deep fascination with plants. Since then I have worked on projects concerning restorative farmlands at Department of Agriculture in Fort Collins, CO and farmed on an organic farm in Kauai, Hawaii. I am so excited to be back in the field in Colorado this summer and am planning to explore plant reactions to drought and how this may effect pollination success. I will be investigating this by measuring flower duration of plants with differing environmental sensitivity.
Hello! I’m Camille Oster, a Missouri native and recent graduate from the University of Missouri with a degree in biology focusing in evolution and ecology. For the past two years I’ve been working with Dr. Candace Galen at MU studying plant pollinator interactions. While I loved our field site in Missouri’s tallgrass prairies, I’m delighted to join in on the research happening here in Colorado’s alpine. This summer I’ll be studying formica ants and how changing climate is impacting their interactions with alpine wildflowers. Aside from research, I enjoy hiking, biking, running, and anything outdoors.
A Beautiful but Especially Breathtaking Start to the Season
My first view of Pennsylvania Mountain was of an impending mound from highway 9 with two humps and a bit of an intimidating continence. As we whipped towards the trail head, which rests around 10,500 feet, instead of my stomach flipping my lungs gave a twirl. I had only been back in low oxygen high beauty Colorado for a few days and my body was definitely feeling the change.
As our first day went along although, the mountain views were more than enough to fuel my legs up the almost 3,000 feet to the true summit. We were not hiking for just the views although. Along our wandering trail through the lower elevation area of the Krummholz, which is full of Bristle Cone Pine (Pinus longaeva) and willow bushes (Salix sp.), we encountered our first of 25 phenology plots. The first plot was indicated by ragged plastic flags from the previous season and marked an area that was around 30m long and 10m wide. These historic plots were established in the late 1970s and have been used by multiple groups of scientists to study phenology of alpine plants.
Phenology is referring to the timing of seasonal natural phenomena such as when plants bloom and put out seed. In our case, we are most interested in the phenology of flowering for eleven alpine herbs that are pollinated by Bumble Bees (Bombus sp.). It is still early in the season, so even though we had a relatively early snowmelt, there were not many of our interest species blooming. The few early bloomers scattered the ground of the plots with bright splashes of color. Sky Pilots (Polemonium viscosum) peeked their bright purple tubular flowers from fernlike leaves while dwarf clover (Trifolium nanum) lay close to the ground and raised soft pink flowers up from thick leafy beds. We will be monitoring this plot every week for the rest of the season so there will be sure to be more to come. Although it’s a pleasure to count and observe these alpine jewels, it is also an honor to be a part of such a long running research effort. The ability to use data from a span of 40 years allows us to ask interesting and important questions about how climate change is impacting alpine plants and their pollinators.
Dining and dashing in the plant world
What a week! Long term phenology studies are in full swing, and my and Elsa’s research is picking up as well. It’s becoming daily routine to hike up to Pennsylvania mountain’s summit. Afternoon thunderstorms are now included in our schedule as well. We were caught in a moment of hail this week! The mileage and weather might be beating down on us, but Colorado’s summer blooms bring the spirits right back up.
If you frequent mountain hiking trails, you’ve probably seen Polomonium viscosum, whether or not you realized it. Also known as alpine skypilot, this lovely purple lady is often visited by bumblebees that give pollination service. Less welcome visitors include formica ants. These industrious thieves nectar rob, meaning they steal nectar, but don’t spread pollen between plants. Sort of like dining and dashing of the plant world. In the process, skypilot’s style is chewed off, preventing the flower from ever producing seeds.
These two relationships, ants and bees, have shaped Polomonium flower dimension. Bees prefer larger, wider flowers to pollinate while ants prefer shorter, wider flowers to nectar rob. My research is evaluating how these pressures alter flower shape in various habitats. Formica ants are not found on the summit or in the swale, and in these areas we can expect bumblebee pollination to be the dominant pressure. This summer I will be monitoring skypilot flower shape and ant damage of randomly selected flowers in several phenology plots. This week I established my flowers to monitor and from here on out I will be observing blooms from bud to senescence.
Wet or Dry? The Clover Question
This week a new host of floral characters were jotted down on our phenological data sheets. Old Man of the Mountain (Hymenoxys grandiflora) followed the sun with its bright yellow inflorescence, turning certain hillsides into giant sun dials. We found it in multiple of our phenology plots and it brightened our day on Monday, the day we always collect our phenology data.
The rest of the week was spent on the set up for my individual research project for the summer. I am interested at looking at how drought effects the flowering success of alpine plants. Snow is an important variable in high altitude settings since snow melt is a major water source for alpine species. Recent studies have shown that there is a trend for accelerated snow melts, meaning a spike of water earlier in the season and leading to a longer period of drought later in the summer. This can cause a large host of problems, such as a phenomenon called phenological mismatch. This term can refer to when plants period of flowering is not matched with when pollinators are present. This can be an effect of earlier snow melt since the influx of water earlier in the season can cause accelerated phenology of plants.
I am planning on studying how flower duration/longevity could be affected by drought. This will be an interesting thing to investigate since how long a plant will flower may effect the degree to which phenological mismatch may impact its pollination success. In general, alpine species tend to have longer flower longevity then their lower elevation counterparts to compensate to less frequent pollinator visitors. My study species are three clovers in the genus Trifolium in the Fabaceae (Pea) family: Dwarf Clover (Trifolium nanum), Parry’s Clover (Trifolium parryi) and the Alpine Clover (Trifolium dasyphyllum). I chose these species since there is some in-genus variation in flower timing and they are frequently present at phenology plots at different altitudes. The next thing I needed to decide was how to look at how water availability effects flower duration in these plants. I decided to use a sub-section of the phenology plots for my study and to qualify half as “wet” plots and half as “dry” plots depending on amount of water accessible.to plants. I measured water availability by looking for presence of water loving or “indicator species”. These are species, for example the Marsh Marigold (Caltha palustris), which only grow in areas with high water content. I used six different indicator species. When two or more species were present, the plot would be considered “wet” while if one or less indicators were present, a plot would be considered “dry”. It was a week of very wet and very dry hiking boots and I am excited to start marking my study plants at these plots for monitoring in future weeks!
This week the phenology team was down a member on our flower count day as Elsa was under the weather. With any field work, it’s important to stay flexible; we adjusted our data collection methods and thankfully still got all our work done on time. Some lovely blooms are becoming more common, such as this blue and purple Penstemon. A rarer sight that caught my attention was this white Polemonium viscosum bloom. Flowers can vary in color due to a genetic mutation, environmental conditions, or anything in between.
I’d like to discuss the bumble bee and formica ant relationship study methods in a bit more detail. In order to observe P. viscosum with and without the pressure of nectar robbing from ants, I have chosen six phenology plots with ants present and six without. The plots without ants were difficult to find because it appears that formica ants are becoming more common and moving up in elevation. At each plot, I randomly selected 15 skypilot plants that I observe until they produce buds. Of those 15, I randomly selected 5 plants to exclude ants from. This is where things get sticky. I use a plastic straw to cover a P. viscosum inflorescence stalk and apply Tanglefoot, a sticky insect trap, to prevent ants from ever reaching an open flower. You can see a photo of my ant exclusion setup here, but trust that a photo does not capture how messy and gummy things get. This method gives us a view of inflorescences without ants at any elevation. From these 15 replicates, I will weekly measure flower dimensions and record if flower styles have been removed. Using this data, I expect high alpine plots lacking ant damage to have wider flowers than lower alpine plants that need to protect from ant nectar robbing.
To Bee or Not to Bee?
On Wednesday we chased golden hour on highway 9, marveling at how our mountain was outlined in the days last breathe of light. We hiked up our familiar trail as the mountains around us turned into peaks of pink sherbet and the chilly air of alpine night began to creep onto our fingertips. We were taking this late night adventure to check if any bees had nested in “bee boxes”, which are small wooden boxes that resemble bird houses. We had placed these boxes on the mountain a few weeks earlier, the hope being that queen bumble bees would use them as nest sites and therefore allow us to monitor their behavior for the rest of the season. The check had to be performed at night because during the day the queen could be out foraging and we could miss her presence.
Zach demonstrated to us how to check the boxes by leaning down, unscrewing the lid of the box and poking the cotton inside. He explained that if a queen is present, we would hear a sharp buzz sound that is defined as “defensive buzzing”. We scurried around the sunset lit hillside, poking our hands into cotton and listening carefully for any back off buzzes. The mountain was sadly quite except for our footsteps. There were no occupied bee boxes. This could be for several different reasons. It is possible that we placed the boxes too late and missed the time period where queens are searching for a nest. It is also possible that there are less queens nesting in the area in which we placed the boxes then in previous years. It is hard to pin down a reason why our bee box’s remained empty but it has encouraged us to find other ways to study bee behavior.
We have been attempting to find out the locations of natural bee holes, which are bee nests made in holes in the ground by queen bumble bees. We have found their locations by observing bumble bees and attempting to track them back to their nest. This can be a highly adventurous activity, since bumble bees can fly very fast and are easy to lose track of as they zip along wind currents. So far we have found seven natural bee holes which we will observe for the rest of the season and hopefully find some more along the way!
This week I was also trying to discourage bumble bee visits at some of my plants for my individual project. It may seem counter intuitive but pollination of flowers actually has the ability to decrease flower duration for a plant. To avoid this variable, half of my plants in which I will measure flower duration are now “pollinator excluded”. I achieve this by putting somewhat of a tent over the plant, made up of a wooden stake, mesh fabric and nails that pin the contraption to the ground. They are quite endearing looking, resembling a kind of small fairy tent sticking up from the hillside. These contraptions will remain on these plants until the end of the season and I will be monitoring flower progression twice a week. Much fun to come!
Rain on the Research Parade
While field biologists spend much of their time leading up to field season preparing for research, so much of our work can be unpredictable and impossible to plan for. Study species can be difficult to find. Flags and labels can move or just disappear entirely. Weather can be erratic and even dangerous. We ran into a couple of these hiccups this past week. Our schedule for flower and bee phenology is well planned out. On Mondays we collect flower phenology data and on Tuesdays we set out microphones to collect bee phenology data. The problem with our plan lies in Mother Nature not caring about our plan. On Monday at about noon, much earlier in the day than usual, some intimidating thunderstorms started rolling in. With many of our field sites being a 45 minute hike from tree line, we elected to turn back early. Luckily, we were able to finish up our flower phenology the next day with no problem.
My research studying formica ants and P. viscosum also ran into unforeseen issues this week. My study design is built around having an equal number of plots with formica ants present and without. As the season has progressed, ants and ant damage to flowers have appeared in some of my “ant-less” plots where they historically have not been found. While this lends support to my hypothesis that formica ants are moving up in elevation, it makes things messy for my research. Similarly, my plots on the summit of Penn most definitely do not have ants, but are weeks behind in flowering compared to my lower elevation plots. Unfortunately, these problems do not have as easy of a fix as bad weather. But such is the way of field work, we have to work with what we’ve got.
On a lighter note, we have some lovely new blooms on the mountain including Rhodiola rhodantha, aka queen’s crown, and Penstemon whippleanus, common name whipple’s penstemon.
Catching the Bumble Buzz And Sowing the Trifoliums
This week my main focus was monitoring Trifoliums (clovers) for my individual project. My “wet” and “dry” sites are located at many different places on the mountain and so a full day of monitoring also means a full day of hiking. When I get to a site my first task is to find my marked plants. Each marked plant has a circular metal tag below it, so it can take some sharp eyes and detailed notes to locate them in our 10m by 30m plots. Luckily after this week and last, half of them have pollinator exclusive mesh enclosing them and so are much easier to spot. After I locate a marked plant I then proceed to search for buds. To have full span of data for flower longevity, it is best if I can mark flowers when they are in the bud stage (flower is closed and inaccessible to pollinators). This way I can get the full flower duration from the flower being closed to full bloom to its last phase when the flower is dried out and there are no longer rewards for pollinators. If I find any buds while inspecting my marked plants I mark them with small sowing pins at the base flower. It is funny what house hold objects can be useful when it comes to field work. After the first marking of buds every time I return I will check in on the progression of the bud. I use a scale of 1-3 to qualify the stage of the flower, 1 being the bud stage, 2 being full bloom and 3 being dried out. I also count the total amount of blooming flowers on the plant and am hoping by the end of the season I can get the full flower duration for 3 flowers per marked plants. Currently I have around 60 marked plants at my 10 plots which I will be monitoring for the rest of the summer.
The other thing I was working on this week was placing small microphones at my marked plants which have an flower in full bloom to measure bumble bee visitation by buzz density. I try to get out to the field early on these microphone placing days because ideally the microphones are recording at the plants for 5-6 hours. I place the Chapstick sized microphone at “flower level” slightly away from the plant. The microphones have furry wind covers that help reduce excess noise so when I leave plots they often resemble small animals kneeling by my flowering plants. At the end of the time period I return and pick up the microphones. The recording will then be processed by a program on the application Audacity and I will be able to know the frequency of bumble bee visitation to each plant because of the buzzing recorded by the small microphones. I am interested to use this data to investigate if water stress affects flower duration and therefore affects pollinator visitation. I will also be doing this microphone routine every week. A treat from this week was my first spotting of one of my favorite flowers on the mountain, the Colorado Columbine (Aquilegia caerulea). I spotted these elegant friends wedged between two rocks on the false summit and it brightened my whole week.
Fleeing Thunder and Finding Bees
Some of my friends and people I have met hiking have asked me if I ever get bored hiking the same mountain every day. When I was hauling up one of the steeper slopes of Pennsylvania and was suddenly surrounded by a field of bright yellow alpine buttercups (Ranunculus adoneus), I realized why I am never bored of this place. It is simply not the same mountain every day. The sky shifts between a steely grey of threatening storms to the light blue of early mornings, all within one hike. The hills have already changed their colors multiple times, new phases of flowering bursting onto the stage of rocky slopes. This week, even as we get later in the season, we saw multiple new blooms in our phenology plots. The pink fireworks of Queen’s Crown (Rhodiola rhodantha) and the charming elephant trunks of Elephant’s Head (Pedicularis groenlandica) erupted into the more damp parts of the mountain between the false summit and summit which we call the swale.
It was a stormy week, with thunderstorms threatening or breaking on Pennsylvania almost every day. This can be challenging when doing field work because there has to be a constant judgment call of when to start heading down the mountain because of dark skies. I ended up on both sides of the coin this week, some days I was scurrying down rocky scree as thunder clapped in the distance while on others, the storm passed without incident.
On one of the more clear days I helped Zack with a portion of the audio recording project that involves capturing bumble bees. We would wander some of the more densely flowering sections of the mountain, stalking bumble bees on flowers and capturing them with a deft swing of an insect net. I definitely got better as the day went on at actually succeeding to capture the small buzzing creatures with my swings. After we succeeded in capturing the bees, they were placed in plastic vials and put into a small cooler with snow we had collected. This encourages them to enter a metabolic state called “torpor” which involves a slowing of heart and metabolic rate and appears as a sleepy or still condition. This does not harm the bees, since it is an adaptation they utilize on colder days on the mountain to conserve energy. Their more sleepy state also allows us to complete the next step which involves taking several measurements of the bees and identifying which species they are in a small mesh tent. We then allow them to warm up and fly around the tent as we record the sound of their flight. The different species have different frequency of buzzes during flight, which is correlated to size. The larger species have a lower frequency while the smaller species have a higher frequency of flight, a phenomena that can be noticed when one compares the sound of a mosquito to one of a bumble bee. After we got a good recording of their flights, we released the bee’s back out onto the mountain. The recordings of different species flight frequencies will help us when we are analyzing the data we get from our microphones that we use to monitor pollination. It will give us a better idea of the species diversity of bumble bees that are visiting different plants. We will continue to do more bee catching and recording for the rest of the season!
Now that we’ve reached late season in the alpine, I’ve begun working on another research project with a later flowering plant: Taraxacum ceratophorum. Better known as alpine dandelion, this aster is a different species from the introduced common dandelion you find in your backyard: Taraxacum officinale. T. ceratophorum is distinguished by having sepals that point up rather than out and down and leaves with little to no serrated, toothy edges. Its’ flowers are frequently visited by bumble bees and bee flies, among many other insects. Dandelions are often considered nuisances or weeds, but if you look close at the Dr. Seuss-esque flowers, you might find them as cute as I (or bumble bees) do.
My experiment compares the pollination effectiveness of these two hairy pollinators, bumble bees and bee flies. This research is a continuation of the experiments of Emelyn Piotter, a previous MALT intern and a former colleague of mine in Dr. Galen’s lab. She studied how the two insects differ in pollination behavior and how their setae (hairs) pick up pollen grains, showing that bumble bees are more successful in both fields. This experiment takes those findings and asks if T. ceratophorum can produce more seeds from a visit by a bumble bee or a bee fly. My experimental setup has three treatments: control flowers are openly pollinated by any insect, while two experimental groups are excluded from pollinators using a stake and tulle netting. Once an experimental plant is flowering, I uncover its’ veil and allow either a bumble bee or a bee fly to forage, recording the amount of time spent foraging. For all three treatments, I also count the number of open flowers. Yes, you read that right, a dandelion bloom is actually an inflorescence made up of dozens of flowers, why it’s able to produce so many seeds you’ll see float away. Once any inflorescence is finished blooming, I bag it up and count how many seeds it was able to produce from pollen delivered. We expect to see more seed set from bumble bee pollinated plants than bee fly pollinated plants because they spend more time on blooms and their hairs hold onto pollen grains better. Lastly, I am also video taping control plant blooms during peak pollination time to get an idea of what pollinators have more ecological importance to dandelions.
While this experiment seems simple enough, nature doesn’t always cooperate with data collection. I might end up with most of my plants pollinated by bumble bees and only a few by bee flies just by chance, or vice versa. Also, waiting around for a pollinator to show up to one plant can take anywhere from minutes to hours. If you see me staring at a plant for what seems like way too long, I’m not crazy; I’m just doing science!
Saying Hello and Goodbye to Flowers
This week rare sights became common friends on phenology day. Whipple’s Penstemons (Penstemon whippleanus) prominent dark purple flowers littered the slopes, replacing some other flowers that we are seeing less and less of as the season continues. We are in our last few weeks of our field season and the mountain is changing from the continuous heat and lack of rain. We have started to say things are getting “crispy”. We also have started to see the Harebells (Campanula rotundifolia) which are charismatic members of the bellflower family. They have begun to open their jewelry box worthy blue bells, which Zack has told us can be a marker of the end of the highest point of flowering.
I have definitely seen this phenomenon in my individual project. Dwarf clovers (Trofolium nanum) have ended their flowering period for the summer. Their small cushions are full of dried flowers from the bottom of the mountain to the summit. Parry’s Clover (Trifolium Parryi) is harder to nail down with its flowering timing. In lower elevations almost all of the distinctive pink blooms are dried up, their flower duration marked “finished” on my data sheets. At the mid and higher elevations although, some plants are yet to flower or are in mid bloom. Alpine Clover (Trifolium dasyphyllum) seems to have a similar pattern. It has been lovely to visit the same plants each week to monitor the flower stage of my marked individuals because it allows me to become familiar with flower timing of these species and the changes in different parts of the mountain. In the next few weeks its likely that flower density will continue to go down as we slide down the tail end of the season, but we have had a lot of rain in the last few days so we will see!
As a last note, I wanted to do a little species highlight that we saw this week. Zack led us around some rocks until we spotted the strangest thistle I have ever seen. It’s well known common name is the Mountain Thistle (Cirsium scopulorum), but as Zack led us to it he introduced it as the Alien Head Thistle and I could see why. It had a huge grouping of green flowers that formed a head like shape, underneath which its sharp barbed leaves burst. I took a picture of it for size comparison and it was very close to the size of my head! Definitely a plant to look out for when hiking in mountainous areas in Colorado, especially because it is a native thistle!
Sacrifice in the Name of Science
Next week marks our last day of counting flowers to study phenology. While this is our eighth round of flower counting, no week has been completely the same. We have had the opportunity to see plots of different elevations and wetness come into peak flowering and fall out of it again. To someone who has no interest in plant life, the mountain might look as if it’s in full bloom all summer. In fact, flowering species are waxing and waning at their own pace throughout the season. I encourage any outdoors enthusiast to get on a first name basis with the native plants around them. Say hello to buckwheat and columbine!
As I wrote in my previous post, most of my time studying alpine dandelion involves siting and watching a flower, waiting for it to be pollinated. Unfortunately, there are a couple issues with this method. Firstly, it can take hours for a single pollinator to show interest in your plant. Secondly, I am studying both bumble bee and bee fly pollination, and cannot control which shows up or how many replicates I have of each. As a backup, I am also replicating previous methods that use pinned, dead pollinators to brush across a dandelion and copy pollination. Regrettably, this means I had to capture and sacrifice three bumble bees and bee flies. While killing any important pollinators should be discouraged, I made sure to not kill any queens. Here you can see a Bombus sylvicola worker covered in pollen. With these supplemental methods, I can make sure I have a complete data set of pollination and seed set.
An Early Morning Treat
This week our phenology plots were filled with the regular characters but we saw some late bloomers on our hike to the summit. One was a mustard colored dandelion look alike, Burnt Orange Dandelion (Agoseris aurantiaca). Its bright countenance brought everyone down to get a closer look and it was a good lesson on the faults of common names. Although it is called the Burnt Orange Dandelion, it is in fact in a completely different genus then the dandelion (taraxacum) genus.
I got up onto the mountain as the sun rose two different days this week. It’s a special time on the high slopes, quiet and full of light. The golden pink early sun lifts up the Knotweed (Bistorta bistortoides) that covers the sides of the trail, highlighting their white and pink puff ball inflorescences. I mostly walked the early trails to avoid storms in the afternoons as I was placing microphones and doing my second to last round of monitoring days. I am having mostly “finished flowered” markers on my data sheets or coming to the sad realization that some of my marked plants may not flower this season. This is the precarious reality of field work, most of the time nature does not go plan.
We did another round of individual bumble bee recording this week and the type of bee’s we caught were another marker of the lateness of the season. They were mostly “worker bees” which are the progeny of the queen bee’s we were catching earlier in the season. They are differentiated by their large size difference which is present in almost all species. The queen’s are markedly larger than their worker counterparts. We still caught a few queen bee’s this week and it was interesting to wonder if these are newly produced queen’s that will be leaving their original nest and creating their own brood next season. I have been feeling grateful for my time on the mountain as we get down to the last two weeks, still a full field work week to go!
End of the Bloom
This week we said farewell to Pennsylvania Mountain. It’s been an incredible summer of field research, and we are all sad to see it go. Our flowers have reached the end of their blooms, and Penn’s landscape looks less colorful each day. In fact, this week’s flower phenology count took the least amount of time of all summer.
An unfortunate facet of scientific research, especially biological sciences, is an inordinate amount of waste produced, usually plastic. Most field research requires marking the natural landscape with tags or flags. Some of these must remain season to season for long term research. Any markings from our research that could be removed, however, we made sure to pick up this week. This ranged from tiny metal tags and nails to heavy wooden bee boxes, making our hiking load a bit tougher. Despite the extra weight, we were glad to pick up what looks like litter to anyone hiking on Penn.
This research opportunity has taught me so much in terms of research planning and the difficulties of field biology. I am grateful to MALT and Dr. Galen for this internship and guidance, to my field team colleagues for their help and friendship, and of course to Jolene the dog, without whom Penn would be much duller.
Saying Goodbye to Mt. Pennsylvania
I am almost finished with my last week of field work. It has mostly consisted of one last round of measurements, both for phenology and for my individual project. Our phenology day was short this week, even our most abundant plots have become dry this late in the season. It was lovely to spend one last beautiful day on the mountain with our two volunteers from Fairplay, Wendy and Ella. They have been helping us with phenology each week for the season, and it has been lovely to get to know some residents of the area even with the unusual circumstances of this field season. We celebrated our last day with them with cookies and a big thank you.
A big part of my week was spent collecting my field equipment as well as concluding my data collection for my project. All of my pollination exclusion nets, tags and sowing pins had to be retrieved from my plots around the mountain. This was a slightly nostalgic activity, since I set up all of these in my first few weeks of the season. I have learned so much on Pennsylvania Mountain this summer, from Bumble Bee species ID to the intricate timing of flower blooms. Despite the aches in my legs after our big hikes and the sun burns from the harsh alpine sun, I am grateful for every day I spent in the field. I learned how to construct my own field project from scratch in a new setting, how to adapt when things did not go to plan and how to catch a bumble bee off of small alpine flower with the swift swipe of an insect net. The eight weeks flew by and I will be sure to come to visit Penn Mountain next summer when I will be just a few hours away conducting my first field season of graduate school. I will remember the spectacular view from the summit and a beautiful summer.