Jessica Forrest: Buzzing about bees

As a young girl growing up in the suburbs of Montreal, Jessica Forrest spent her days playing in the woods that surrounded her house. Living next to the agricultural and environmental campus of McGill University, Forrest had ample opportunity to enjoy the animals that lived on the university’s farm however even as a child she was more  interested in the smaller, less cuddly beings that lived in the woods that she frequented.

“I always liked bugs,” Forrest says smiling, sitting at her desk in her small but bright corner office at Ottawa U, “Some people grow out of that, others don’t.”

Throughout her undergraduate degree at McGill Forrest worked at an insect museum, however after a few years she grew tired of looking at lifeless specimens and decided she wanted to turn her attention to observing these creatures in their natural habitat.

Forrest says she also wanted her work to have real-world application and decided that looking at the evolutionary ecology of plant pollinators and plant pollinator interactions seemed like a good path because of how much humans rely on pollinators for food production.

This is how she came into the world of the bee.

Forrest says that the majority of her research is focused on native bees of which there are over 800 species in Canada.

“People work on honey bees a lot but there are  all sorts of other types of bees that can be good pollinators and we know so much less about them and the threats to their survival,” she says.

Biologist and bee enthusiast Jessica Forrest in the field

Honey bees are originally from Europe and Asia, she says, and are not technically native to Canada. They are, however, economically important because they are the main pollinators in highly managed ecosystems where large fields of the same crop have replaced the diverse habitat that would have been conducive to native bees, she says.

Forrest has chosen to focus her work on the native species, particularly how a lack of snow cover can affect their survival over the winter.

Forrest says the idea that all bees live in hives in a common misconception. Typically solitary creatures, native bees travel alone from flower to flower gaining sustenance from nectar and spreading pollen wherever they go which helps to repopulate plants.  When the temperatures start dropping some bees burrow into the ground while others find a hollow twig or branch in which to make their home for the winter.

In winters past, snow cover has been enough to keep the bees that do not hibernate underground insulated. But with increasing worldwide temperatures Forrest says there may no longer be enough snow cover to keep these bees at a constant temperature over the winter.

To study bee behavior, Forrest says she uses “trap nests” –  hollowed out  pieces of wood with holes drilled into them. She says  bees will come and make their nest in the wood, and by lining the holes up with straws they can eventually take the straws out to see how the nest is progressing.

“It’s always kind of a big thrill when bees use the nest blocks that I’ve made for them,” Forrest says, beaming with motherly pride, “I find it really neat to see an individual bee doing her thing in this structure that I provided.”

To monitor her bees as they move from one nest to another, Forrest says they put a spot of paint on their thorax. Forrest also says that she  gets attached to the bees that she studies and even admits, somewhat sheepishly, that she sometimes names them.

“ But I really shouldn’t” she says, laughing.

Forrest says she is preparing several experiments that will be put into place over the winter of 2014 that will analyze the impact of temperature on bees themselves above and below the snow.

Forrest says she believes her research is important because native bees are responsible for pollinating many of the flowers that grow in the wild. She hopes to be able to educate people about native bees and hopefully, in the long run, prevent their decline.

“I want to make people aware that there are all those other bees out there that pollinate wild flowers or they’re just interesting in their own right,” she says. “If you spend some time outside watching flowers you will see those bees come and go and some of them are really beautiful.”




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