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!


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.

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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!

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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

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Study Finds Very Few Wild Bee Species Pollinate Major Crops

Very interesting results from a huge study. “Only two percent of wild bee species pollinate 80 percent of bee-pollinated crops worldwide”.

You can read the full study here: http://www.nature.com/ncomms/2015/150616/ncomms8414/abs/ncomms8414.html

Entomology Today

A sweat bee in the genus Lasioglossum. Photo by David Cappaert, Michigan State University, Bugwood.org.
A major international study finds that surprisingly few bee species are responsible for pollinating the world’s crops. The paper, published in Nature Communications, suggests that only two percent of wild bee species pollinate 80 percent of bee-pollinated crops worldwide. The study is one of the largest on bee pollination to date.

While agricultural development and pesticides have been shown to produce sharp declines in many wild bee populations, the study shows these “busy bees” can remain abundant in agricultural landscapes.

The study gives a powerful economic rationale for conserving wild bees. It calculates the value of wild bee pollination to the global food system at $3,000 per hectare of insect-pollinated agricultural land, a number in the billions globally.

But the findings also offer a warning to conservation advocates hoping that economic arguments…

View original post 444 more words

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Connecting Farmers With Each Other and the World

Connecting Farmers With Each Other and the World.

Just read this article on the Rainforest Alliance blog, and thought it was very interesting. It seems like a large network through which farmers can access information on best practices, coping with climate change, etc. This information is usually communicated to them via extension workers, but may more up-to-date, or easier to obtain online. Since there aren’t that many extension workers in Puerto Rico, I’m wondering if farmers there would be interested in this.


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What to plant in your pollinator-garden in Puerto Rico

In the past few months, I’ve received a few emails from people interested in planting their own pollinator garden in Puerto Rico. So, here I finally provide you with that information.

As some of you know, in 2013, I did some research in agricultural fields in Santa Isabel and Juana Diaz, where I collected bees and identified the plants on which they were foraging. From that research, NRCS published a short fact-sheet, which they based off of my final report. Though NRCS was able to squeeze in most of the information into the fact-sheet, they weren’t able to get everything from the 50 page report.

Below is a link to the PDF with the complete list of native and introduced plants on which I documented the bees foraging on.

List of native and introduced plants with images.
Note that this work was supported by a Natural Resources Conservation Service grant (68-F352-12-008) and NCSU Department of Applied Ecology.

Please refer to the bees listed in my “carribean bee ids” if you want to learn more about the bees foraging on each of those plants. If you see “E_” and “L_species”, those names are referring to Exomalopsis species and Lasioglossum species, respectively. I wasn’t able to determine which species was foraging on the plant, in the field…was only able to identify them to genus. The Lasioglossum species (L_species) are currently being revised by Jason Gibbs. Apparently some of the species in Puerto Rico were misidentified, and some of them are new to the island. Once he publishes his paper on the Caribbean Lasioglossum, I’ll share a link to it, for anyone who’s interested.

Please feel free to contact me if you have any other questions I can address. I’m really happy that my blog is helping promote pollinator friendly gardens in Puerto Rico 🙂

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Oh boy! It’s been a while! Here’s what I’ve been up to :)

I can’t believe my last post was 6 months ago!  Time really does flies when you’re having fun!

Well, here’s what’s new:

Personally: I got engaged, and have been wedding planning. My best friend got married, and I was bridal shower planning.

Professionally: I’ve officially started my PhD, and field work in the coffee plantations of PR is continuing. I’m taking classes, so I’ve had to figure out how to balance work, a degree and classes. It’s been good so far 🙂

My PhD will be on the same coffee plantation research I started last year, but will be a lot more detailed than originally planned.

I went down to Puerto Rico in February, to try and find coffee farmers that fit the shade/sun criteria and the canephora/arabica  criteria, but it proved to be a lot more time consuming than I thought. Probably spent a minimum of 5 hours driving around the mountains near Utuado for the entire two weeks I was there. Once I found people willing to participate, I realized I timed my arrival wrong. Coffea canephora flowers bloom earlier than C. arabica flowers, in Puerto Rico. So, I arrived about 2 weeks to late too pollinate the canephora flowers, and 2 weeks too early to pollinate the arabica flowers.

A bit of background on coffee

Coffea canephora and C. arabica are the two main species of coffee that are commercially produced worldwide. Coffea canephora has a more robust flavor, and is hardier with regards to weather and pest tolerance. It’s also known as Robusta coffee. It’s usually not considered a high quality coffee, because of it’s strong, bitter flavor. Coffea arabica on the other hand, is the nicer smoother coffee, which you’ll see in stores sold as whole beans. Both species of coffee were originally grown as shrubs under forest canopies. But, because of agricultural intensification, growers have started clear-cutting land, and planting coffee in full sun (i.e. Sun coffee). This is a way that growers can achieve a high yield, but it requires a large amount of chemical inputs, such as fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. Shade coffee is grown under a tree canopy, which can vary from fruit trees, to a few species of nitrogen fixing trees, to a full-blown native tree canopy (like a forest). All of the shade densities and compositions have different names (e.g. full-blown native tree canopy = rustic coffee plantation). The presence of a shade canopy can help production by slowing down the coffee bean’s maturation rate, allowing it to grow bigger. Bigger beans are considered of higher quality than small beans.

C. arabica on left, and C. canephora on right (see leaf size difference)

C. arabica on left, and C. canephora on right (see leaf size difference)

C. canephora leaves are huge!

C. canephora leaves are huge!

Where do bees come in?

Bees play an important role in coffee pollination. Although C. arabica can self-pollinate (i.e. no need for cross-pollination by animals), the quality (size, shape, etc) benefits from pollination. Coffea canephora, on the other hand needs to be pollinated. Bees are the main pollinators. We are trying to figure out how the agricultural practices (sun/shade) can influence the bee population on the farm, and ultimately how crop pollination is affected by the bee population presence/absence on the farm.

Stay tuned for more details. I promise, I won’t let another 6 months go before posting again!

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Moss Experiment – October Update

This is just a quick update on the growth of my backyard moss. Since it’s cooled down outside, I think the moss is doing even better! It’s a nice bright green color, now. It helps that September was an extremely wet month, too.

Unfortunately, the soil in my backyard is still eroding, leaving the top layer really sandy, and the bottom layer hard as rock. I think the sandy top layer has been washed away in the area shown in the last image, so the moss is really taking off there. It’s also the shadiest part in the yard, since it only gets a few hours of morning sunlight, and it’s shaded by the house the rest of the day. So, cool wet areas = ideal for moss. But, sunnier and drier areas aren’t bad…the moss just grows more slowly (images 2 – 4).

The steppable moss (image 1) is also doing fantastically, and I’m looking forward to seeing it fill out the bare patch of soil.

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Moss growth since April

Moss growth since April

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Another new generic record for Puerto Rico – Hylaeus

Last month, I collected two female Hylaeus from Puerto Rico. There are no known Hylaeus recorded for the island, so I’m not sure what species these ladies are. I’m working on trying to identify them, and will update this post, once I have more information.

To date, I have found three new generic records: Ceratina, Sphecodes and now Hylaeus. This shows that more sampling is needed for the island.


Hylaeus female face - from Puerto Rico (image by Andrew Ernst @ NCSU)

Hylaeus female face – from Puerto Rico (image by Andrew Ernst @ NCSU)

Hylaeus female side- from Puerto Rico (image by Andrew Ernst @ NCSU)

Hylaeus female side- from Puerto Rico (image by Andrew Ernst @ NCSU)

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New paper on new generic record for PR

Last year, I mentioned that we had collected a few new records for PR. I’m in the process of writing up an annotated checklist of the bees of PR (with bee species and flower species associations), but in the time being, we published this.

This is my first official bee publication to date, so it’s quite a momentous occasion for me. I’m working on a few more, so stay tuned!

Sphecodes species from Santa Isabel, Puerto Rico. Picture taken by Sam Droege, USGS BIML

Sphecodes species from Santa Isabel, Puerto Rico. Picture taken by Sam Droege, USGS BIML

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Moss experiment July update

Three months ago I posted about the benefits of moss, both for the environment and for the homeowner. I started a mini-experiment to see how long it would take for moss to grow, since

1. I’m very impatient and

2. In Moss and Stone Garden’s blog they mention it could take months before the moss starts growing.

So, three months later, I can say I’m very pleasantly surprised by the amount of growth I’m seeing. Below you can see the before-after pictures I took from April and this month (July). You may notice in the first image that there’s sort of a green tone to the ground near the flower bed. That’s completely new moss growth.

Moss spores have created a new moss patch!

Moss spores have created a new moss patch!


Moss planted in April (left) and moss growth through July (right)

Moss planted in April (left) and moss growth through July (right)

Moss planted in April (left) and moss growth through July (right)

Moss planted in April (left) and moss growth through July (right)


Moss planted in April (left) and moss growth through July (right)

Moss planted in April (left) and moss growth through July (right)

The most impressive moss growth occurred from the moss I purchased from Lowes as ‘stepables’. When I first planted them (the bright green and dark green blobs) I thought I had been lied to since the blobs had roots, and moss doesn’t really have roots. But, the more I look at it grow, the more it looks like just a different variety of moss. They’re growing quickly, likely due to the high amount of shade and also because it’s been quite a wet summer, here in Raleigh.

–> Note: I just looked at the stepables web page and found out it really isn’t moss…it’s some kind of evergreen known as Irish moss and Scotch moss. Nonetheless, it spreads well and does what I want it to!

Moss planted in April (left) and moss growth through July (right)

Moss planted in April (left) and moss growth through July (right)

Anyways, I’m glad to report that my moss is growing and it’s gradually beautifying my yard. Still a long while before it fully carpets the ground like I want it to, but it’s moving in the right direction!

Hope you give it a try!

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