Menu

Learning to See the Forest for the Bees at Olympic National Park

“How many species of bees do you think there are?”

I realize at this moment that I can only think of about three, which is clearly the wrong answer. JD Herndon and Houston Guy, entomologists who have come up to Washington State from Utah, wait patiently with little grins on their faces. They know most of us haven’t a clue.

I’ve come to Olympic National Park for BioBlitz 2016, joining scientists, students, teachers, and community members for a nationwide event to celebrate the National Park Service centennial and inventory as many species as possible in protected areas around the country.

From the moment I first stepped foot in it, this park has always had a special place in my heart.  Covering nearly one million acres on the Olympic Peninsula, the park contains three distinct ecosystems: sub-alpine forest and wildflower meadow, temperate rain forest, and the rugged coastline of the Pacific. Its more isolated location on the peninsula and the surrounding mountainous topography means that it is host to many endemic species, and it has been named both an international biosphere reserve and a World Heritage site. It’s a place you could spend a lifetime exploring—and basically an unbeatable spot for a BioBlitz.

A mind-boggling number of species can be found in this one photo of the Hoh Rainforest, which is one of the best and most pristine remaining areas of temperate rainforest in the United States. Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis.
A mind-boggling number of species can be found in this one photo of the Hoh Rainforest, which is one of the best and most pristine remaining areas of temperate rainforest in the United States. (Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis)

Get the Party Started

The events kick off at the Visitors Center in Port Angeles with “Moth and Pollinator Night.” I arrive a little early, just in time to catch local entomologist Dennis Strenge setting up the light traps we’d use to attract moths. Walking inside, I’m drawn to the displays of insect collections that have been put out for the event. This is our first chance to get a sense of some of the moths and pollinators we’ll be encountering over the next 24 hours of BioBlitz. JD and Houston are standing by to answer questions, and everywhere I go in the room I overhear a wonderfully nerdy conversation being had. (And let’s be honest, I initiated some as well—trypanosome infections in bees?? I had to know more!)

We are given a crash course in the world of bees and moths as we wait for it to get dark enough for our light to start attracting bugs. Somewhere around 9:45pm we get our first visitors. Dennis, who has been running an insect biodiversity study for the past two years in the park, is no stranger to catching the moths by hand. He holds them gently, allowing all of us eager helpers to get a good look or attempt a photo for iNaturalist before placing them in a glass vial and laying them on ice. Soon, a sphinx moth joins us. We all gather round, letting this one just rest on the white sheet without collecting. I call it a night around 10:45pm, wondering what else might be yet to come.

Eager BioBlitzers, including National Geographic Young Explorer Jonathan Kolby, move in for a closer look of the Sphinx moth that has landed on our light trap. Worldwide, there are about 1,450 species of moths in the Sphingidae family of moths. Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis.
Eager BioBlitzers, including National Geographic Young Explorer Jonathan Kolby, move in for a closer look at the Ssphinx moth that has landed on our light trap. Worldwide, there are about 1,450 species of moths in the Sphingidae family of moths. (Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis)

An Ecosystem in Revival

The next morning I reconnect with JD and Houston in the drained bed of the former Lake Aldwell just outside of Port Angeles.

In 2012, the Elwha Ecosystem Restoration project successfully removed the Elwha Dam, which had created the reservoir of Lake Aldwell back in 1913. The removal of the dam was a significant move forward for the region, beginning the restoration of over 70 miles of fish habitat for Pacific salmon and steelhead within the National Park. Once drained, revegetation crews visited the Lake Aldwell area to plant native species that would help speed up the restoration process. The weekend’s BioBlitz activities provide an opportunity to examine this ecological restorative process, taking note of both the pollinators we encounter as well as the plant species we find them on.

We make a beeline (pun obviously intended) for the lupines, our nets and water traps in hand. Once a bee is spotted, we learn how to swing the net against the flowers, then “centrifuge” it back and forth to get the bee near the bottom, ending with a final flip and a twist to trap it while we get a closer look. After collecting two species of bumblebees, identified as Bombus sitkensis and Bombus mixtus, we set out the water traps in a transect between two larger areas of lupine, placing different colors of cups out to attract different pollinator species.

A bumblebee hovers midflight as it approaches a lupine flower, red pollen already collected on its legs from the morning's travels. The lupines signify a return to native vegetation following the removal of the Elwha Dam in 2012. Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis.
A bumblebee hovers mid-flight as it approaches a lupine flower, red pollen already collected on its legs from the morning’s travels. The lupines signify a return to native vegetation following the removal of the Elwha Dam in 2012. (Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis)

After a few more bees are collected I leave the group and move west so that I can catch the afternoon activities in another part of the park. I snap one more bee photo and then make my way to the Hoh Rainforest, a two-hour drive from Lake Aldwell.

As I drive, I wish I could be in two places at once—Lower Elwha Klallam storyteller Roger Fernandes is speaking back in Port Angeles about totem animals of the Elwha Klallam people and addressing the importance of a cultural perspective on biodiversity. His stories about the local area highlight that nature is something that we learn from, that the way in which species interact is something that we learn from, and that the important tradition of storytelling is a way to inspire and connect younger generations to the outdoors. I hope that someday I will get to hear one of his stories in person.

 

Living Life Out on a Limb

I arrive at the Hoh just in time to see Dr. James Freund from the University of Washington begin to ascend a 250-ft tall Douglas fir on the Hall of Mosses trail. He and his team have come out to elucidate the details of a single — its age, its carbon storage, its role in the ecosystem—and highlight all the living things that can be found on its roots, trunk, and canopy.

Dr. James Freund of the University of Washington ascends a 75m tall Douglas fir tree that acts as our living laboratory for BioBlitz. By the end of the day, 46 species had been inventoried from this tree's canopy, though it's expected that the true number of species hosted here is much higher. Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis.
Dr. James Freund of the University of Washington ascends a 75m-tall Douglas fir that acts as our living laboratory for BioBlitz. By the end of the day, 46 species had been inventoried from this tree’s canopy, though it’s expected that the true number of species hosted here is much higher. (Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis)

I watch James ascend the tree, not knowing that his colleague, Sean Callahan, has been up in the canopy for some time sampling a variety of epiphytes that the tree supports, including mosses, lichens, and liverworts. Several BioBlitz enthusiasts, park rangers, and visitors stand below, their necks craned towards the climbers. I think we’re all a little jealous, but mostly it’s just the excitement that’s palpable.

Zipping down from the tree canopy, James and Sean reveal a variety of species they’ve collected from their bags. We all clamor around to get a closer look at what’s been found, and I note Dicranum howellii and the lipstick lichen as two of the species we’ve identified. All around me I see iNaturalist open on peoples’ phones, excited to have the opportunity to begin inventory on a canopy ecosystem that most of us will never visit in person.

A young boy from the Quileute Tribal School uses iNaturalist to search for the species he's just identified brought down from the Douglas Fir canopy. Park rangers and researchers from the University of Washington stand by to answer questions and show off some of the smaller species from the canopy with a light microscope. Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis.
A young boy from the Quileute Tribal School uses iNaturalist to search for the species he’s just identified brought down from the Douglas fir canopy. Park rangers and researchers from the University of Washington stand by to answer questions and show off some of the smaller species from the canopy with a light microscope. (Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis)

It’s the rainforest after all, so when the rain starts to come down we move inside and set up a table with light microscopes to check out some of the smaller findings, including a whole mix of microarthropods that I knew nothing about before this moment. Groups of students from the Quileute Tribal School in La Push gather round the table, eager to explore the canopy findings. The past eight weeks of their after-school enrichment program focusing on STEM and natural history has been leading up to this event, and they’ve mastered iNaturalist to boot.

As the afternoon events wrap up, I decide to spend some time meandering the Hall of Mosses trail at a slower pace. Even though my background is in conservation biology and I’ve always been someone who’s excited and curious about the natural world around me, I find that the BioBlitz events have left me markedly more giddy and interested about everything I’m seeing. I feel like I’m paying attention at a much more micro-level, and I realize just how many different types of living things are surrounding me in this moment—each tree I encounter hosts its own ecosystem, and every species on it plays a part in how this ecosystem functions.

A Pacific banana slug travels slowly through the epiphytic moss growing on one of the old growth trees found on the Hall of Mosses trail. This species was one of the top three catalogued during the Olympic National Park BioBlitz in terms of overall numbers, joined closely by the western red-backed salamander and the salmonberry. Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis.
A Pacific banana slug travels slowly through the epiphytic moss growing on one of the old growth trees found on the Hall of Mosses trail. This species was one of the top three cataloged during the Olympic National Park BioBlitz in terms of overall numbers, joined closely by the Western red-backed salamander and the salmonberry. (Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis)

It’s humbling, really, to see yourself in the context of how many other living things make up the world around youand for me this was the most important part of BioBlitz. Though I wish I wouldn’t, I know at some point I’ll forget that Latin name I learned, but this feeling of walking through the forest, eyes attuned to notice each type of moss—this wonder and curiosity that I needed a good dose of—this will keep growing in me.

The Results So Far

A few days after BioBlitz has wrapped up, I reach out to Catharine Copass, the Vegetation Inventory Project Coordinator for Olympic NP, to see if there are any preliminary numbers from the weekend. Although she tells me that the final tallies will still take a while, the initial data from iNaturalist show 251 species catalogued, with the Pacific Banana slug, Western red-backed salamander, and the Salmonberry taking the lead in numbers of sightings. BioBlitz birders using eBird tallied up another 100 species. And on the big Douglas fir tree alone, 46 species were ID’ed, and we know that this this is only a sample of what was up there.

Catharine Copass, the Vegetation Inventory Project Coordinator for Olympic National Park, shares some BioBlitz discoveries with fellow park rangers in the Hoh Rainforest. Catharine organized the BioBlitz events for Olympic NP, including a unique iNaturalist account for the event to keep track of all species inventoried over the weekend's events. Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis.
Catharine Copass, the Vegetation Inventory Project Coordinator for Olympic National Park, shares some BioBlitz discoveries with fellow park rangers in the Hoh Rainforest. Catharine organized the BioBlitz events for Olympic NP, including a unique iNaturalist account for the event to keep track of all species inventoried over the weekend’s events. (Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis)

It’s apparent from the conversations had, conversations overheard, and the goofy smiles on peoples’ faces that BioBlitz has helped us better understand our connection to the environment and our relationship to all the living things we share the planet with. And it’s given us a sense of stewardship and some tools to help realize our potential in promoting biodiversity conservation, all in just 24 hours.

Oh, and the answer to that first question from the start? There are over 20,000 species of bees. What a world!