• Original Reporting
  • On the Ground
  • Sources Cited
Original Reporting This article contains new, firsthand information uncovered by its reporter(s). This includes directly interviewing sources and research / analysis of primary source documents.
On the Ground Indicates that a Newsmaker/Newsmakers was/were physically present to report the article from some/all of the location(s) it concerns.
Sources Cited As a news piece, this article cites verifiable, third-party sources which have all been thoroughly fact-checked and deemed credible by the Newsroom in accordance with the Civil Constitution.
Florida State University graduate student Fatima Alcantara, right, counts wildflowers in a Rocky Mountain Biological Lab study plot along with Professor Nora Underwood during one of the lab's three seasonal flower counts in Gothic, Colorado on July 29, 2023. Alcantara leads RMBL's flowering phenology data collection. The lab has approximately 35 flower research sites in the meadows from low elevation to high in the mountains near Crested Butte. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

GOTHIC — Tiny bees are as busy as they proverbially can be near this once-upon-a-time ghost town. They zig and zag around a patch of fleabane, blue flax, potentilla and sneezeweed, collecting gluttonous bunches of nectar and golden pollen.

Rebecca Irwin and her team are equally busy as they make their way through the flowers, swiping long-handled nets over plants to capture the buzzing insects.

Each bee gets a number and a quick but thorough going over. Are they queens, female workers or wandering males bent on early mating? What is the pattern of their orange, yellow and black stripes? Do they have shaggy “hair”? Is their pollen load packed in abdomen baskets or stuck on their legs making them look like they have on baggy pants? Do they have long or short antennae? Short or long faces? What kind of flowers were they feeding on when they suddenly found themselves enveloped in mesh?

That information is jotted down in notebooks as the bees are examined in bee “squeeze chutes” — small tubes with plungers that force the bees up to a grid on top. The field researchers can peer through that grid that serves as a tiny window for bee inspection.

Researcher Rebecca Irwin prepares to mark a captured bee after catching it in a net in a meadow near the Rocky Mountain Biological Lab in Gothic. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

If the captives are bumblebees, they are identified, counted and dotted with neon markers so they won’t be counted more than once. Then they are allowed to buzz off to continue their work in the flowers. Native bees are dumped into vials of a preservative solution — sacrificed for the sake of knowledge. They are so small they must be examined with a microscope after they are pinned and labeled.

This bee hunt is part of a climate change-related science called phenology — the study of the cyclic nature of biological events. In this case, that comes down to the intersection of the flowering of plants, the arrival of the pollinator bees and the weather.

Irwin has been working on this study for 14 years at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory, or RMBL, one of the most important phenology research sites in the world.

Fourteen years is too soon to make sweeping declarations about the survival of bees in a world with a rapidly changing climate, Irwin says. But what she has learned so far indicates that smaller species of bees — solitary critters that live in holes in the ground like sweat bees, leafcutters and mason bees — seem to be holding their own for now. The bigger bumblebees may be in a bit of trouble.

“These little gals, “Irwin says, pointing to tiny bees circling potentilla flowers like shoppers in a Whole Foods produce department, “we anticipate these little gals will do well.”

Climate change has entered the conversation

The “little gals” represent the possibility of some rare good news at RMBL, where much of the long-term scientific measurements of the flora and fauna are on the doom-and-gloomy end of chronicling a warming Earth. Lab observations here at 9,500 feet date back a century and show that changing weather patterns have tipped growing and migrating patterns in this subalpine zone into the quirky realm.

The numbers of many pollinators are decreasing for many climate-related reasons, including the fact that the wildflowers no longer necessarily bloom at the same time that the hummingbirds wing in and the wild bees climb out of their nest holes to begin their short life cycle.

“I think we can really see that things are out of whack,” said David Inouye, a University of Maryland professor and world-renowned phenology expert who has been counting flowers and pollinators around Gothic since 1973. He has teamed with Irwin on the study focusing on how the bees and the blossoms intersect.

When Inouye began looking at pollinator habitats, climate change hadn’t entered the vocabulary or the world’s growing list of worries. He was one of just a handful of scientists at RMBL back then studying when flower budding and pollination began and ended.

Fields of Aspen sunflowers and lupin show off their vibrant colors during a rainstorm July 9 on the Snodgrass trail near Crested Butte. Many of the Gunnison Valley’s Aspen sunflowers bloomed nearly 3 weeks earlier than normal despite the heavy winter snowpack and were killed by frost. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Now, academics are in full bloom around Gothic studying all sorts of critters, plants, soils and weather phenomena. Some 200 of these visiting scientists poke up from the meadows and mountainsides this summer in sun shirts and wide-brimmed hats, clutching clipboards, nets, and packs stuffed with vials, solutions and tools.

Their work used to be a remote pursuit. Today, it is on display along a county road with a steady stream of vehicles and mountain bikes bound for higher terrain with its cooler temperatures and wildflowers that are still holding on after five weeks of little to no rain.

School groups bob around in the flora outside the weathered lab buildings at Gothic. Tourists hover near the general store and nearby coffee shop. RMBL has become a tourist attraction as well as a serious science location.

Away from the bustle of an outdoor research lab, scientists and budding scientists do the all-important job of cataloging phenology data in a warren of computers, stacks of notebooks, pressed flowers and pinned insects.

Climate scientists around the world value data collected at Gothic that relates to the visitation of the birds-and-bee pollinators to an area famous for its proliferation of wildflowers. The dates of first flowers, the seasons they continue to bloom, the frost and heat damage they sustain, the burgeoning of some and shriveling of others, are all measured and documented and compared.

Inouye notes that it is data that has been bested only by the thousand years of records establishing the timing of the first flowering of cherry trees in Kyoto, Japan.

“But we have additional detail,” Inouye said in a low-key boast.

Those extra details, noted first in reams of hand-numbered charts, focus on the necessary intersection of flowers and pollinators — something mostly overlooked by the hordes of flower peepers who flock to Crested Butte each summer to ooh and aah over the flamelike licks of Indian paintbrush, the polka-dot fields of yellow mules’ ears and the profusion of spiky blue lupines.

LEFT: Indian paintbrush blooming on a hillside near Almont. RIGHT: Lupin blooming in an aspen grove on Kebler Pass. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

ABOVE: Indian paintbrush blooming on a hillside near Almont. BELOW: Lupin blooming in an aspen grove on Kebler Pass. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Visitors are drawn to the beauty of the flowers, but most aren’t aware of how much they have bees to thank for the floral display, said Rick Reavis, an interpretative flower guide at RMBL and the Crested Butte Wildflower Festival, and author of a wildflower guidebook.

Reavis, who has a background in botany, delves into the findings of a host of RMBL research projects to educate visitors. He talks about how the Mancos shale underlying the Crested Butte area helps to nourish flowers; how the three growing zones in the area are shifting so that some plants are moving into higher alpine zones while drought-tolerant shrubs move into lower areas; how so-called “superblooms” — the fields of flowers loved by Instagrammers — are a desert phenomenon and don’t really happen around Crested Butte; how some flowers such as the green gentian can live in a state of sleep for decades; and how the bees that visitors swat at as stinging pests bear a lot of responsibility for the flowers.

A season of floral abundance like this year’s is not just good for photos; it predicts how many eggs a bee can lay — eggs that will be packed in solitary underground nests with pollen and nectar before the new crop of bees emerge to scoop up more pollen and start the cycle all over again.

The rare study of bees and flowers together 

Irwin, an ecologist from North Carolina State University, has been zeroing in on those bees since Inouye recruited her for his phenology project because he needed someone to count bees while he focused on his first love — counting flowers.

Their joint study is the only one of its kind in Colorado and one of very few around the world that examines the combination of bees and flowers.

Irwin said she also does her study in collaboration with the National Native Bee Monitoring Network, a U.S. Department of Agriculture-funded effort to conserve native bees. The network works to establish best practices for bee collection projects across the country.

On the ground in Gothic, the combined study of bees and flowers plays out with Inouye and his team hunching over a flower patch on a mountainside meadow, while Irwin’s team darts about after bees in an area fringed by skunk cabbage and willows, circled by squawking crows and peppered with biting horseflies.

The studies take the researchers to 16 other sites spread from Almont 24 miles to the south and to the other side of Scofield Pass above Gothic. The bee researchers move so that no site is tested more often than every two weeks and the bee populations are not depleted. The team can capture up to 100 bees an hour. 

Research assistant Melanie Kazenel searches among wildflowers for bees to net in a meadow . Kazenel works with bee researcher Rebecca Irwin who has been collecting data on wild bees numbers and their seasonal appearance since 2009. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)x

Irwin said it will take many years to establish broad science-based conclusions establishing that the variability of the smaller-sized bee species is indeed increasing.

For now, the bees are demonstrating this resilience in a season when wildflowers sprouted late in a wild profusion because of the epic snow that piled up to 351 inches in Gothic over the past winter. Now those wildflowers are dying out quickly after an extended period without rain.

But even as the flowers are withering in the heat, the tiny bees are out there gathering wads of orange and yellow pollen from blossoms that are now looking sad and sparse. The flowers have reduced their nectar production because they are in a distressed state, so the bees have to work harder on their collecting.

Melanie Kazenel, a postdoctoral researcher, and Jade McLaughlin, a field technician, who are also working on the bee study, said they believe that part of the bees’ resilience is likely due to the fact that many of the species they are capturing are “generalists.” That means they are not picky eaters; they snack on pollen and nectar from many different flowers. Bees that gather their sustenance from only one type of flower could be in for more trouble.

“There are so many questions that can be answered with this data,” Kazenel said as she examined a pollen-loaded bee through the grid in a tube and pulled out a bee identification printout to check on its stripe pattern.

One question is what kind of flowers will be thriving around Crested Butte in the future. Will Crested Butte continue to be the Wildflower Capital of Colorado?  What these researchers can answer, without a doubt, is that the bees will have an important say in that.

Blue columbines, the state flower of Colorado, bloom among the shade of an aspen groove near Gothic. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Special to The Colorado Sun Email: Twitter: @nlofholm