By Flora Gibson, Columbia Gorge News (View original link)
In the unique and complicated mosaic of habitats that makes up the Columbia River Gorge, Frances Fischer leads a group of volunteers as they search out native plants and attempt to catch pollinators in the act, working to survey the area’s wildly numerous and diverse native bees.
“We’re collecting these bees and pinning them and trying to identify them and sending them back to Oregon State University,” said Fischer, who has led volunteer outings for the Oregon Bee Atlas since 2018. “The goal is to have an atlas and a better understanding of the native pollinators of Oregon.” The government-funded program helps farmers, landowners, teachers, and volunteers throughout the Gorge learn about bees, and make new discoveries.
As a student in ecology and entomology, Fischer studied bees in her university town. When she moved to the Gorge and went to work for Friends of the Columbia Gorge Land Trust, she was already looking for something bee related, and the Oregon Bee Atlas seemed a perfect connection.
At that time, volunteers learned the basics in a classroom, but that changed after COVID. “We have all of our information on the internet,” said Fischer.
Once trained, volunteers explore the state with nets and kill jars, usually on their own or with a friend, collecting bees in natural landscapes like forests and meadows. On public land, permits are needed.
Fischer organizes outings to land owned by Friends of the Columbia Gorge, which includes sites on Mosier plateau, a local hotspot of biodiversity. “It’s a great meadow for collecting bees,” Fischer notes. “So I send out an email to the group and people sign up and bring their nets and equipment and meet me where the wildflower meadow is ... volunteers will walk around and watch the flowers waiting for a bee to land, catch the bee in a net and collect it for later identification, marking what flower it was on, maybe even a guess of what kind of bee it is. And then we’ll usually have some lunch and hang out in the shade and enjoy the gorgeous view.”
“This is important for research to know what kinds of bees we have now, how populations may be changing. And just (to get) a better understanding of the ecology of pollination in Oregon,” Fischer said.
Many of Oregon’s 700-plus native bees have highly specialized life cycles. To find them, let alone understand them, volunteers must search and record a wide array of plants. Some, like the native phacelia species — silver-fuzz-covered, pale-flowered herbs in the waterleaf family — attract a diverse array of bees. Other plants provide the sole source of pollen and nectar for specialized bees that only survive in certain habitats. “We have a list of flowers ... every year,” said Fischer of her volunteer group, “like, Oh, hey, will you make sure to go check out the willow bloom in the early spring down on the waterfront, or make sure to watch these early spring flowers or the late sunflowers to gather bees on those certain times of the year.”
The Columbia Gorge, with its network of rivers, highways, and natural areas and many native plants, has its own unique assemblage of specialist bees, according to Fischer. “We have so many different habitats; we have meadows and the eastern Gorge, and we have darker rainforests on the far western Gorge,” Fischer said. “So there’s definitely different species.”
“Just this area of the gorge provides so many different ecosystems and plant communities, that there’s this really great opportunity for people in that area to find hundreds and hundreds of species of bees,” OBA taxonomist Lincoln Best agreed. “So we find that there are coastal sand dune bees up and down the coast, we find ... on Mount Hood, that there’s alpine bees, we find desert bees in the desert, we find, you know, grassland bees in the grasslands,” Best said.
Some bees seem weedy and common, Best said, but each plant community hosts unique species.
“We had this question about whether it’s worth people really sampling that much around Portland,” Best admits, as the area is “not really known for bee species richness.” But volunteers found that, provided there are native plants, they find diverse bees even there.
Fischer enjoys spending time with the citizen scientists who work on the Atlas. “You know, they have jobs doing other things,” she points out. “And they’re not being heard normally, but they have chosen to come volunteer ... to serve nature, and want to learn more, even if that’s not their career. It’s really fun and inspiring to meet cool people that way.
“You know, most people interact with honeybees and maybe some bumblebees, but there are so many bees. And if you just take your take the time to sit down in a wild, natural place and look at flowers, you’ll see so many different kinds of pollinators and insects and bees,” said Fischer. “It’s kind of hard to imagine but there’s hundreds and hundreds of species just in Oregon alone, more in Washington, hundreds of thousands all over the world, so they’re a really diverse and amazing group of insects.
“One thing I love to say is, that honeybees aren’t the most important bee in the world,” Fischer concluded. “There are many bees that are so important to learn about and protect and look into ... I think that’s something that everyone should know, is how to take care of our native insects.”
The Master Melittologist program can be found online at extension.oregonstate.edu/master-melittologist/how-register. Fischer recommends people sign up for the winter training early, to be ready when flower season kicks in.
For more information about volunteering in the Gorge, contact Fischer at Frances@gorgefriends.org.