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Searching for bumble bees: Dr. Duennes’s research in Mexico

By Elizabeth Van Pilsum, Staff Writer

Originally Published February 6, 2024

In November 2023, Dr. Michelle Duennes, Assistant Professor of Biology, spent three weeks in Mexico conducting research on bumble bees, which is her area of expertise. Duennes was in Chiapas, the southernmost state in Mexico, from Nov. 11 to Dec. 8, 2023, and she spent most of her time in the city San Cristóbal de las Casas.

“I call [San Cristóbal de las Casas] ‘mi casa segunda’ because I would go there so much when I was still in grad school that it kind of felt like my second home,” Duennes said. “It’s a really wonderful city.”

The first week of her visit, Duennes participated in a conference called BOMBUSS, which stands for Building Our Methods Using Sound Science and is a play on the bumble bee’s genus, Bombus. BOMBUSS is a conference meant to bring together people from different parts of North America and Europe to discuss studies on bumble bees.

Duennes was part of a discussion about the endangered species list while at BOMBUSS, and she was also on a panel about citizen science and education where she talked about using bumble bees in the classroom at SVC. She brought with her to the conference two SVC students who were conducting their research projects in her lab, Bridgette Gorg, senior environmental studies major, and Lucy Johnson, senior biology major.

From left to right, Gorg, Johnson, and Duennes on a field excursion in Chiapas with BOMBUSS. (SOURCE: DUENNES)

At the end of the week, Duennes went on a field excursion with the conference to an ecological reserve to look for bumble bees. She hiked up a mountain to go see colonies of stingless bees, which are kept in tiny boxes in a grotto as well as living in the wild in the crevices of the grotto. While Duennes did not find bumble bees there, she found other bees, including Africanized bees which stung her multiple times.

“I got stung nine times, mostly in the back of my head, because they’re attracted to dark colors, so they flew right in my hair,” Duennes said. “They were on the way up to the stingless bee colonies, so we had to walk back past them on the way back down, so I covered my hair and got completely silent and walked slowly. Only a couple people got stung on the way out. It wasn’t that painful."

For the week following the conference, Duennes remained in Chiapas to do field research for the book she’s writing with Clay Bolt, nature photographer. The book is called Bumble Bees of the Americas, and it is a field guide to all bumble bees living in the Arctic all the way down to

South America. Duennes helps Bolt find the bees, and Bolt photographs the ones they identify. Duennes then writes descriptions of the bees and their habitats to accompany the photographs.

While in Chiapas, Duennes found the largest bumble bee she has ever seen, a queen Bombuss mexicanus. (SOURCE: Bolt)

While in Chiapas, Duennes and Bolt were looking for eleven species of bumble bees for their book, but they only ended up finding five. Their initial plan was to travel Chiapas extensively, but several of the sites they hoped to go to were inaccessible due to cartel activity, and so they were only able to search northern Chiapas. Every day in the field, Duennes made a list of places to scout based on where people have previously found bees and then set off in search of them.

“A lot of [field work] is driving around, rolling down the window slowly and looking at a patch of flowers from the side of the road and to see if there’s bees there,” Duennes said. “Every now and then you’ll see a big one, and that’s when you swerve off to the side of the road and jump out with your net.”

“Bees, bumble bees in particular, are more drawn to places people inhabit because we tend to grow flowers in them, so you’re not really in the middle of the wilderness looking for them,” Duennes said. “You’re on the side of the road looking for weeds or flowers in somebody’s garden, so it’s not super rugged field research.”

Duennes was very pleased with the results of her search and felt like she and Bolt made great progress on the book.

“We found this one species that’s kind of rare that I was really excited to find,” Duennes said. “There was this one field site that was just on the side of the road and [researchers] had seen Bombus mexicanus there and we found the biggest bee I’ve ever seen in my life. I think she was two inches long. We caught a lot of them!”

For the final week of her time in Mexico, Duennes worked in a museum at ECOSUR, a university in San Cristóbal de las Casas, looking at bumble bees under a microscope and then drawing them by hand. The drawings were made with colored pencils to capture the bees’ color pattern, and they will be digitized and put in the book.

“The ones I was drawing for the most part were the ones we couldn’t find,” Duennes said. “We want to put them in the book because the guide isn’t just something you take on vacation with you to figure out what bees there are. We want it to be a way to learn about species you may never see.”

Bumble Bees of the Americas is expected to be published in 2027, so there is still lots of work to be done. Still, Duennes feels as though she made lots of progress while in Chiapas and that getting photographs of the species they found there was very exciting.

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