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UW Professors Receive NSF Grant to Collaborate on Bumblebee Research, Art

March 2, 2015
bee upside down on flower
Michael Dillon will use an NSF grant to study alpine bumblebees in different geographic regions, and will collaborate with Ashley Hope Carlisle to create an interactive exhibit where the public can learn more about the science. (Michael Dillon Photo)

Ecology and art will converge for two University of Wyoming professors who want to create a little buzz about the science of bumblebees by using a little creative expression.

Michael Dillon and Ashley Hope Carlisle recently secured a $436,238 National Science Foundation (NSF) research grant that will be used to study how alpine bumblebees exist over large geographic regions. The two plan to make the science more palatable for a general audience with the creation of an interactive bumblebee sculpture exhibit in UW’s Berry Biodiversity Conservation Center.

“For our broader impacts, we have proposed working with the Biodiversity Institute and with Professor Carlisle to create an educational installation with interactive sculptures to communicate the science to the broader public,” says Dillon, a UW assistant professor in the Department of Zoology and Physiology.

“We have a couple of ideas. The work will bring the science behind the bees’ wing structure and pollen-collecting processes to a magnified level that will allow for an interactive experience for the viewer,” says Carlisle, an artist and UW associate professor of sculpture in the Department of Art.

Carlisle says she was struck by the image she saw through a microscope of a bumblebee leg that was covered with sticky pollen.

“We want to make it accessible to kids and the public at large,” says Carlisle, who specializes in cast metal, steel fabrication, woodworking and paper casting. “We want to create works that can be derived from the science.”

The science that will be studied with the three-year grant will focus on bumblebees -- specifically, why bees native to different geographic regions can live in such varying climates without being genetically different, Dillon says.

Two species of bumblebees -- Bombus bifarius and Bombus vosnesenskii -- will be studied at altitudes ranging from sea level to 13,000 feet in an area that spans from Washington to Southern California. Jeffrey Lozier, a biology professor from the University of Alabama, and James Strange, a biology professor from Utah State University, who also is with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Pollinating Insects Research Unit, will be involved.

“We will get at the grand question: How is it that these indigenous species can live in diverse climates and not be genetically distinct?” Dillon says.

Dillon was lead writer of a research paper on the subject of some alpine bumblebees’ ability to fly to heights greater than Mount Everest. The paper was published in the February 2013 issue of Biology Letters, a Royal Society journal that publishes short, highly innovative, cutting-edge research articles and opinion pieces accessible to scientists from across the biological sciences.

During the research, the wild male bumblebees -- captured at 3,250 meters near Rilong, in Sichuan, China -- flew at higher simulated altitudes in a Plexiglas field flight chamber. Dillon dropped the pressure in the chamber to mimic 500-meter climb intervals in altitude to see how the bees would react.

All of the bees tested could fly above 7,500 meters, an elevation higher than six of the seven highest mountain summits in the world. Three flew above 8,000 meters. Two bees flew above 9,000 meters (29,527 feet), revealing that some bumblebees can fly over the top of Everest, the world’s highest mountain peak.

Cross pollination of disciplines

Carlisle and Dillon met at the Ucross Foundation during last summer’s “The Ucross-Pollination Experiment.” The two-week artist-in-residency program paired UW faculty members in the sciences and arts, and challenged them to produce something that connected science with artistic expression.

Carlisle joked that the experience of finding a collaborative partner was akin to “speed dating.”

“We had a bit of time with every single person there,” she recalls. “Michael and I talked about what we would do if we were paired together.”

Since that meeting, their ideas continue to emerge. They include creating different-sized bee wings to let visitors experience and understand how quickly bees need to flap their wings to be able to fly and what that frequency is at different elevations. If Carlisle ends up creating a giant bee leg, she envisions using Velcro to create pollen balls that can stick to the insect appendage.

One possibility for whatever is artistically spawned is to create something modular that can be built upon further and also serve as a traveling exhibition. Schools, regional museums and Denver Botanical Gardens are potential destinations for the eventual interactive display, Carlisle says.

“I think we, as artists, are scientific in our approach. I’m interested in taking this adventure with him (Dillon),” Carlisle says. “For me, it’s also exciting to get my work outside of an art museum or gallery setting. I feel I can reach a broader audience with this.”

“I think bumblebees are fantastic fuzzy ambassadors for pollinators, and people should be aware that they can be found in these incredible places,” Dillon says. “We want to foster an excitement for doing science. If the public can get hands-on experience with the science, that’s exciting.”

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