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Leading scientific research about bees keeps Clara buzzing

With an eye for research and exploration, Clara Stuligross ’14 has completed an internship with the Environmental Protection Agency and trekked across Virginia’s Shenandoah River Valley, Utah’s rugged mountain ranges and New Zealand’s eye-catching vistas, all while earning her degree.

The environmental studies major also experienced the hustle-and-bustle of New York City as a participant in the 2012 Project Pericles Debating for Democracy Conference. There, she took home $3,000 in first prize winnings along with fellow Earlhamite David Schutt ’14 for their defense of a letter in support of the Budget Control Act to reduce military spending and reallocate funds for educational programs to enhance national security instead.

But the scientific research laboratory is where she believes she has left the strongest mark.

Last summer, Stuligross received a National Science Foundation fellowship through the University of Virginia to conduct research on native bumblebees at a field station in the Shenandoah River Valley. Specifically, Stuligross wanted to discover why bumblebee populations are declining.

“One potential reason is that there are fewer flowers at the end of the summer due to drought conditions,” Stuligross says.  “And the bees have to spend more time flying to bring back the same amount of pollen. Bumblebees essentially are spending their entire summer trying to get more and more resources -- pollen and nectar -- to grow their colony, because only the biggest colonies are able to reproduce at the end of the season.”

Part of Stuligross’ research involved looking at the relationship between bees and parasitoid flies which lay eggs in the abdomens of bees during flight, eventually killing the bee.

Stuligross says her research provides the first explicit evidence of the risk that foraging bumblebees experience during the flies’ peak season. She presented her findings at the field station and also on campus at a biology colloquium.

Her work in the river valley, which was filmed for a documentary about native bees, complements research being done by other scientists concerning the broader decline of other bee species. Colony Collapse Disorder among honeybees is threatening the economic stability of commercial beekeeping and pollination operations in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“As honeybees continue to decline -- we haven't been doing a very good job curbing this collapse -- native bees may become increasingly important to fill in this gap, so understanding their biology and potential pressures on their success are especially critical today,” Stuligross says. 

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