Rain, rain, go away, come again …when I’m done, please!

Well, we’re onto visual observations, and it’s going so-so, to say the least. 😦

Last week we were able to get some nectar and pollen collection done, as well as a few visual observations, which was really exciting. It’s nice to go back to working with the actual bees, rather than collecting pollen and nectar as we’ve been doing for the past few months. We’re not seeing much diversity at all – all but one sighting was of honey bees on coffee…but the one sighting that wasn’t a honey bee was so exciting! Continue reading

Posted in Agroecology

Nectar, pollen, measure, nectar, pollen, measure…

**This is going to be a picture heavy post – after all a picture is worth a thousand words! Hope you enjoy!**

So many flowers, so much data! I really can’t complain, though, since things have been going so smoothly. 🙂

We’ve been really lucky with our timing these past two weeks. We’ve been able to arrive to farms either the day of or the day before the coffee flowers opened, which means we were able to either measure floral traits, or bag the flowers to then collect nectar and pollen the following day. Continue reading

Posted in Agroecology, New Life Experiences

Things are great, measuring floral traits!

*Recap: This year, we’ll be focusing on two main objectives: 1. Determining the effects of floral diversity on bee visitation rates to coffee, and 2. Identifying the effects of coffee management practices on coffee floral traits.*

🙂 I couldn’t think of an exciting title for this post, so please forgive the lame name!

But in all seriousness, the field season is off to a great, but slow start. Continue reading

Posted in Agroecology

Field guide for identifying bees in PR

Happy new year everyone! Hope you’ve all had a wonderful holiday and are feeling refreshed and ready to tackle everything this new year throws your way.

There’s just over a week left before I leave Raleigh and head to Puerto Rico for another field season! I’m excited, and nervous, because this is likely to be my last field season for my degree…so I want to be sure to get as much good data as possible. Continue reading

Posted in Agroecology, Bee pictures, Something for you | Tagged

Wet processing coffee

Well, I just came back from spending two weeks in Puerto Rico, checking up on how the coffee harvest is going. I have some amazing technicians working for me, but there’s nothing like being there in person to make sure things are going smoothly and all the data you think needs to be collected, is collected. After a few minor tweaks, I’m feeling really confident about the rest of the harvest and data collection. Continue reading

Posted in Agroecology, New Life Experiences

Harvest time! … or is it?

It’s been a very long time, since I wrote my last post…but that’s because not much has happened (research-wise) since I left Puerto Rico at the end of March.

Just a short recap, for those of you who don’t have time to read my older posts. This January, I set out to survey bees in coffee plantations, and also compare their pollination services in shade and sun coffee plantations. The pollination service assessment was done by hand-pollinating some branches, and leaving others to be naturally pollinated by the environment (bees, wind, other insects and animals). If the naturally pollinated flowers yield the same quantity/quality of fruits as the hand-pollinated flowers (which have received all the pollen they need), then I can say that the plants are not pollen-limited (lacking pollen). If the naturally pollinated flowers have lower fruit quantity/quality, then they may in fact be pollen-limited. Continue reading

Posted in Agroecology, Something for you

Festivals, travel and back at it again!

Sorry for leaving you all on a cliffhanger! My plan from two weeks ago (to go an pollinate all the flowers that I saw blooming and budding AND trap bees) fell through since Pachamama (or Atabey here in the Puerto Rican Taino culture) was still playing tricks on me. Unfortunately all the flowers that looked perfect for pollination had bloomed and were dying by the time we returned to the farms…so we just set traps out. I’m actually pretty glad we didn’t have to hand pollinate and set traps out, because it was a heck of a long and tiring week, with some days consisting of 12 hr work days.

On the 13th, I got to go with one of my lab-mates and good friends, Amarilys to the coffee festival here in Maricao, Puerto Rico. It’s called “la fiesta del acabe” since it was meant to be a celebration of the end of the coffee harvest (from last years flowers), but now it’s become more of a cultural event where artisans, food vendors and musicians get together to just celebrate. There were a few coffee booths, so when we wandered to those we were surprised and also really happy to see one of the farmers I used to work with when I first started on the coffee project, in 2013. Luis Roig is a farmer who was kind enough to let me sample three of his farms for bees, and let Amarilys do her bird surveys on two of his farms for the past two years. He’s a great man, and has now started roasting and processing his own coffee beans for sale at small coffee shops around the island. We tasted some of his coffee and it was absolutely delicious 🙂

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Last week I went back to Raleigh for my green card interview (I got it, by the way! Yay for being a resident and not a “non-resident alien”!) and I’m so glad I did. Spending 5 weeks away from family and friends, and living alone in the field house really took its toll on me, so I was glad to be able to get some real socializing in with my friends and to see my husband and dog 🙂 So, although it was smack in the middle of all my field work, and I was a little nervous about falling behind on pollination, it was perfectly timed for me, emotionally. And, I came back this Monday, feeling completely refreshed and energized!

Actually to give me some peace of my, Monday, my technician was kind enough to go an hand pollinate one of the farms on his own. Tuesday we returned to the same area and pollinated a second farm. So, things were looking really good! A couple of the farms had buds, which we were hoping would flower by Friday, but Pachamama decided we should wait until this coming Monday to go back. The upside of hand pollinating is that it’s kind of relaxing. We just go to our plants and pollinate…so you can kind of zone out, as opposed to setting traps out and having to walk up and down mountain-sides. The downside is that it takes  A LONG time. Like 2-3 hours per farm…especially with the C. canephora which can sometimes have up to 50 flowers per node (we pollinate around 5 nodes per branch – two branches per plant – on 5 plants). So, although we were able to pollinate some coffee plants this week, I sort of felt like we were ‘wasting our time’ when we drove out to farms (1-2hrs away) and would just have to turn around when there were just buds.

This week, the field house is going to start filling up with the birders, one is arriving on the 2nd another on the 6th, and their technicians will also be staying here…so it’ll go from just me to about 5 people here! And, most importantly, my husband Adam will be coming on the 1st to spend the week with me. On the weekend we’ll go to Luquillo, in the north of the island, to spend some time at the beach and celebrate his birthday. So, I think as of this point, time is going to fly by, and before I know it, it’ll be the end of the month and I’ll be back in Raleigh!

As for field work, I think we’re going to have to focus on pollination this week, and hopefully finish up all my farms, and then set out traps for one final sampling. Then, I’m going to have to call all the farmers and remind them to PLEASE not cut down the tree or branch or remove the beans on the plants that we’re hand pollinating. The worst would be to come back to the farms in October-November, when it’s harvest time, and not find the branches which we works so hard to pollinate.

Hoping Pachamama/Atabey helps me out this week.

Posted in Agroecology

Pachamama, why you messing with me?

*Pachamama is the Quechua word for mother nature – being Peruvian, and having spent time in Peru, I learned a bit of Quechua, one of the many native languages in Peru. I love the term Pachamama, and I’m happy to have had the occasion to teach it to you 🙂 *

At the beginning of this week, I was feeling really energized – I had a perfect plan of attack, and it was looking like my pollination and trapping schedules were fitting together like puzzle pieces…now at the end of this week, I’m scrambling to catch up with everything! Such is field work! You can’t really plan things ahead of time, and you have to be quick on your feet to come up with a new plan, otherwise you’re screwed.

Ok, rewind to the beginning of the week. My wonderful husband, Adam, got a call from me at 11:30pm, when I was freaking out about whether or not I’d be able to really tell the difference between the bee population/distribution in sun and shade coffee plantations. The reason being that my sun coffee plantations are not perfectly “sun coffee”. When starting their farm, some farmers lefts some mature shade trees which were already growing on the land, resulting in some of my sun coffee farms having a 20-30 year old shade tree here and there. So, although most of the plantation is sun with just minimal presence of shade trees, there are still some shade trees in a few of my sun plantations! So I was worried about those few shade trees affecting my data, and consequently the interpretation of my data. i.e. would I really be able to tell what’s going on in the sun coffee plantations if there are some shade trees there? Well, thankfully Adam, who is a Climate Scientist, has a PhD in Geography, and who is smart and wise ( 🙂 ) reminded me that this is what an ecological study is like. Nothing is ‘clean’, and so the only solution is to increase the amount of data I have, to try and extract a commonality among all sites. Having done my Master’s degree studying pests in greenhouses, I’m not really used to having such a messy system, so it’s quite a shock…and I’m wondering if I’ll ever get used to it! But, anyways, in short, I knew he was right, and I decided that in order to get a good idea of how shade/sun agricultural practices affect bees, I’d have to add more transects. So, we collected the traps we had set out last week, and identified a second set of transects withing my sun coffee farms. Things were looking good!

While we were working on our sun coffee plantations, I started noticing that some of my Arabica (C. arabica) coffee was flowering! My sun coffee plantations are in Maricao, and I think Maricao is warmer than my other sites, and the fact that the coffee is grown in sun can speed up the flowering process, but flowers in early February are kind of unheard of! Normally the Arabica flowers in March. Last year, it flowered the first week of March, in Maricao. So, this got me worried about my Robusta (C. canephora) flowering schedule! Robusta flowers earlier than Arabica, so if Arabica was flowering, that meant that my Robusta could be flowering too! Unfortunately, the remainder of my Robusta coffee was in Utuado (2.5 hrs away), so driving there to just check on the flowering wasn’t really a good option. So, we called the farmers and got an answer from one who has Robusta growing in shade, and she said it was just starting to flower! So, all of a sudden, I went from having a wonderful staggered flowering schedule (Robusta in Maricao –> Robusta in Utuado –> Arabica in Maricao –> Arabica in Utuado) to having everything flowering all at once! Even the farmers are shocked by this! Adam thinks it must be a combination of El nino and climate change…crazy times!

Magda Ramirez (peacock) (7).jpg

So, the next day we hit the road, and went to Utuado to pollinate my Robusta. We got to my sun Robusta plantation, and the tree had already flowered..probably 2 days prior, and so all the flowers were just about dead. Demoralized, we drove to the shade Robusta (the farm we had called) and thankfully those flowers were prime! Our second shade Robusta was also fantastic. But, oddly, our third shade Robusta farm wasn’t even budding! So, Pachamama is clearly messing with me. She’s keeping me on top of my game. Friday, we drove to my two other shade Robusta farms which are only 1.5 hrs away (in Adjuntas), and they were just starting to bud…such is the unpredictable nature of field work! So, we took advantage of our location to find more sun Robusta farms, in the area, hoping that if the shade ones weren’t flowering, that the sun ones would have the same or roughly the same timing.

We drove around a lot, and got two “Hmmmmm, nooooo, sorry, you can’t use my farm” from two growers, but then we met three wonderful farmers who were more than happy to help us! These farms were in Lares, just a bit north of Adjuntas, and these farms had TONS of Robusta! So, even if a few trees were flowering, I’m sure we’d be able to find 5 for my hand pollination study 🙂

In the end, things kind of worked out, but next week is going to be insane! I’m going to be trapping bees (since I want to see how the coffee flowering affects the bee population – will there be more coming to the farm now that there are flowers? will there be the same amount, etc) along two transects per farm, AND hand-pollinating Arabica AND Robusta. So, it’s going to be really intense, but I’m hoping it’ll be like ripping off a band-aid…quick and sort of painless. I’m happy to say I’ve got a great technician who, even though we sometimes work 12 hr days, starting at sunrise, and ending at sunset, is still energetic and positive. It makes work a lot more pleasant.

Wish me luck for next week! I’ll let you know how it goes, next weekend. Have a great week, everyone!

Posted in Agroecology, New Life Experiences

On top of the world!

This week was action-packed! On Monday we went to Maricao and found a few of the Arabica coffee plants which were flowering, and hand-pollinated those. It was really interesting to pollinate the Arabica flowers after having pollinated Canephora ones, last week, because their size and shape are completely different!

robusta-arabica

Comparing the floral display of Arabica (left) to Canephora (Right)

Monday was also a sad day, because we went to one of my favorite farms and I found out that it had been completely abandoned! It was one of my favorite farms because it had the most amazing diversity of bees that I’d found on the island 😦 so sad…

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Me on a trail in one of my favorite farms! I’m smiling but I’m actually really sad…

Since we still had time after pollinating a few of the Arabica plants in the area, we also set out temperature and relative humidity sensors (called HOBOs) at each of the farms. The reason for that is because I want to know a little bit more about the variation in temperature and humidity around the island, since my field sites are spread around 4 main regions: Las Marias, Maricao/Yauco, Adjuntas and Utuado. The temperature and humidity are really important drivers of the coffee flowering time, which means that if the temperature and humidity vary across regions (which I’m almost certain they do!), then the coffee will be flowering at different times in each region.

2016 farm points west side

Location of my field sites on the island. Four main regions (Left to right): Las Marias, Maricao/Yauco, Adjuntas and Utuado. In case you’re curious, our field house is at the south west of the island…far from all sites!

On Tuesday, we made our way to Utuado (far right on map), because that’s where the majority of our shade coffee plantations are located. **Just for some background…the shade coffee plantations are part of a shade initiative promoted by the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), and this initiative has been in place since the early 2000s. Utuado was one of the first regions to participate in this initiative, so the shade trees at the farms in Utuado are about 15 years old, meaning they’re providing a good shade canopy, now.** Utuado is about a 2.5 hour drive from our field house, so we ended up staying there for the week (at the aviary where they breed some of the endangered Puerto Rican parrots). The coffee there was nowhere near ready to flower (recall different temperature and humidity), so instead of hand-pollinating, we set traps, netted bees and set-out HOBOs out at our farms.

The traps we set out are for the first objective (see my previous post for a reminder). I had originally planned on setting traps inside the forest, but when we got to the edge of the forest and the farm, we realized that the forested patch was inaccessible. So, we modified our protocol to set traps from the forest edge to about 100m into the farm. Why was the forest inaccessible? Well, think about what growing along a mountain top entails. It’s steep, and difficult to work on, so most of the growers have created flat paths inside their farms so that they can access all of their land and crops. Well, if they aren’t planning on cultivating anything in the forest, they don’t create a path to it! And, often the path ends sharply at the edge of a cliff. The reason the farmers don’t grow in the forest is either because 1- they don’t have time to tend to all that land, 2- the terrain is inhospitable (too steep or rocky) or 3- it’s by stream (too wet).

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My awesome technician, Rafael, setting out a trap along the forest edge (note the forest right behind him!)

It was tough work walking up and down the mountain-side. Growers have really strong legs! They do it in simple sneakers, and I’ve got hiking shoes on, and still find it tricky! Anyways, we got everything we wanted to get done, and had enough time to go scout out one more farm on Friday, before heading back to the south-west of the island, where our field house is. It’s nice to be back here, and nice to relax for the weekend…need to re-energize for next week!

Posted in Agroecology, Exploring new places

Let the field work begin!

On January 11th, I returned to Puerto Rico to begin my first full season of field work for my PhD. I’ll be here for 2.5 months, so I’m excited and nervous…need to make sure I get everything done during that time! Why am I in a rush? Because everything I’m doing is dependent on coffee flowers, which bloom during mass floration events. I think it’ll be action-packed, but my new technician (Rafael) seems pretty great, and I think (or hope!) the two of us can get everything done in time 🙂

So, what exactly are we doing? Well this year, I’m going to try and tackle two of my objectives:

1- determine how the heterogeneity of the landscape (coffee plantation + forest) affects bees in sun and shade coffee plantations

2- determine if mother nature (bees, wind, other insects, etc) is doing her job when it comes to pollinating coffee. There are two species of coffee here in PR: Coffea canephora and Coffea arabica. Arabica can produce fruit via wind pollination, but the quality of the coffee can actually improve with animal pollination. Canephora (also called Robusta) is entirely dependent on cross-pollination by animals.

So, how are we going about addressing these objectives?

Well for 1- we plan on setting traps out in the forest fragments found within the farms, and in the coffee plantation (shade or sun). We’ll set the traps out once a month and sample them with a sweep net twice a month and see how the bee population differs over time (before flowering, during flowering, after flowering) in the coffee plantation and in the forest patches.

For 2- we will hand-pollinate some flowers on one branch, and leave another branch on the coffee plant as our control (i.e. mother-nature pollinated). Hand-pollination means that we collect pollen from other coffee plants, and use that pollen to pollinate flowers using a paint brush (See images below!). Then, we count all the flowers on the hand-pollinated branch and all the flowers on the mother-nature pollinated branch, and we’ll return in October-November when it’s time for coffee harvest and compare the quantity and quality of the coffee beans produced on both branches. IF the coffee quality and quantity is the same on both the hand-pollinated branch and all the flowers on the mother-nature pollinated branch, then mother nature is doing her job! If it’s less on the mother-nature branch, then the pollination services are lacking.

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Eppendorf tube with the anthers (pollen carrying parts) of coffee plants which we do not hand-pollinate. We don’t want to have the plant self-pollinate…we want a diversity of pollen from other plants.

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Coffee flower ready for hand-pollination. If you look closely, you can see the anthers around the outer edges of the flower, and the stigma (part that receives the pollen) in the middle. The stigma looks like a “Y”

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Hand-pollinating! We dip the paint brush into the pollen in our eppendorf tube and then touch the stigma. That way we transfer the pollen to the sticky, receptive stigma (right in front of the paint brush)!

It’s tedious work, but thankfully the weather up in the mountains is quite nice and cool, and the views are amazing! So, even though this is work, it doesn’t really feel like it 🙂

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Gorgeous view from one of our C. canephora farms in Las Marias, Puerto Rico

Posted in Agroecology, Exploring new places