Public curiosity about bees kept UC Berkeley graduate student Alex Harmon-Threatt on her toes at an annual wildflower festival at the Sunol-Ohlone Regional Wilderness, south of Livermore, on April 7. Kids and adults alike peered through her magnifying glass at a collection of native wild bee species on display: bumblebees, mining bees, sunflower bees, leaf-cutter bees, yellow-faced bees – even bees that "land on you lightly and drink your sweat," she told incredulous young visitors.
A researcher in the lab of assistant professor Claire Kremen, a conservation biologist and entomologist in Environmental Science Policy & Management, Harmon-Threatt studies wild bumblebees and their important role in the pollination systems essential to farming, especially with non-native honeybee populations in alarming decline. She hopes, through her Ph.D. research, to better understand wild bees' survival strategies early in the pollination season (when there are relatively few flowers from which to collect pollen and nectar), how farmers might use that knowledge to improve their yield, and what the public can do to help preserve bee habitat.
"Wild bees are important in pollination systems; they don't get recognized enough," says Harmon-Threatt. Often native bee species – because they're tiny or iridescent green instead of fat with yellow and black stripes – are mistaken for flies, she says. Other distinctions between native bees and honeybees: honeybees were brought here from Europe, build organized honeycombs, and can be raised in boxes; wild bees live underground and keep just a few days' worth of honey on tap. To a discerning ear, which she's developing, it's also possible to distinguish their "very different sounds" in flight.
Harmon-Threatt's interest in nature and science started early. By 6 or 7, she recalls her mother explaining bees' role in pollinating the flowers in the family's big backyard garden in Chicago. "I remember looking around the garden, thinking there were not nearly enough bees" to handle the job – and proceeding to lend them a hand by pollinating individual blooms with her index finger.
A longtime plant enthusiast, Harmon-Threatt is now studying plants' important relationships with bees, and "I can really see it from the insects' side as well." With fellowship support from the National Science Foundation, she plans to spend the summer evaluating sites for her field research.