Day 16 Fairbanks to home 7/13
Last day in Alaska. I wish Michelle and I had taken photos of our giant duffels, backpacks, fancy camera and science tote all loaded on various carts to get from the hotel room to the shuttle to the airport check-in. It was a potentially comical amount of equipment, but tents, sleeping bags, plant presses, rubber boots, and two weeks of collecting gear are not a small amount of stuff. We decided that Fairbanks is likely one of the nicest small airports ever. Everyone was very nice and helpful, from the check in desk to TSA to the pilot who kindly kept us updated when our plane was late arriving and then had to wait on a maintenance person because a screw somewhere was loose. We were worried we’d miss our connecting flight in Seattle, but fortunately our aircraft from FAI to SEA was the same one going from SEA to LAX. No worries! Two uneventful flights and a very kind LAX long term parking shuttle driver later, we were back at the car and on our way home.
Polar Bees Expedition: over 1,171 miles on the road, 16 days, and a whole lot of bumble bees.
Definitely a good trip.
Day 14 Eagle Summit to Fairbanks 7/11
We’re done collecting! We’ve gotten all that we can on this trip, and collected a good haul of bees in the White Mountain tundra area of Eagle Summit. So we packed up our gear, and headed in to Fairbanks (the glorious land of showers! And internet! And Thai food!). First stop: The University of Alaska Fairbanks' Museum of the Arctic to check out their bumble bee specimens and get some ideas of typical Alaska color patterns for some of the orange-butted species which we’re finding challenging to tell apart. We (mostly Michelle) spent a good bit of time looking at their specimens, while others worked out the details for shipping our specimens back to UCR. The shipping turned out to be a bit more complicated than we anticipated. We went back to our hotel, sorted all of our gear, and Alan left with Jess. The Final Four of the team (Hollis, Bren, Michelle and Kristal) had some delicious Thai for dinner, then adjourned to our hotel where we spent more than an entire season of Trailer Park Boys sitting on the beds and taping individual sample tubes closed while making up for a Netflix deficit.
Day 15 Fairbanks 7/12
It was a morning to divide and conquer. Hollis and Bren went to ship our samples and return the truck with Alan & Jess while Michelle & Kristal organized the Science Tote and our respective bags to get everything packed and ready to fly back to CA. We all met back up and walked to a lovely delicious healthy lunch place called, accurately, Lunch. After that we went back to the hotel where we organized photos, sent emails, and generally internetted out for a while until Bren and then Hollis left for the airport. It was weird to say goodbye to them after such a long trip together, but we’d see Hollis again back at work, and are hopeful that Bren will join us on future adventures.
Day 12 Cripple Creek Campground to Eagle Summit 7/9
We woke up to the chittering of red squirrels and crossbills dropping pieces of spruce cones on us. After breakfast and packing we headed further into the White Mountains. We stopped at Montana Creek, where we found a lot of worker bumble bees visiting Hedysarum alpinum all along the roadside. We collected a bunch, and continued up into the White Mountains.
A storm rolled in as we were driving, and we did our fastest collection of bees at Twelvemile Summit Wayside as rain started. Further up the road we passed a porcupine, and learned that as an Alaskan child Alan would throw his sweatshirt on a porcupine to collect some quills for crafts. We also saw a large, beautiful male caribou so majestic looking that Michelle initially thought it was fake.
We reached Eagle Summit, and found bumble bees visiting a wider array of plant species than we’d seen to date. They were on yellow aster-like flowers (dandelion & Arnica), lousewort (Pedicularis), the reliable Hedysarum and Oxytropis, and even some workers were on little spikes of bistort (Polygonum bistorta & P. viviparum). The storm was passing through, so we collected when we could, and Michelle & Hollis ended up yet again processing some of the bees in the bed of the BeeHemoth. We set up camp in the gravel parking lot, and spent the night.
Day 13 Eagle Summit 7/10
The day started, as many on this trip have, with the sun blazing through the side of the tent at all hours. The early birds got up and had collected quite a few very large Alpinobombus queens foraging on a maroon Pedicularis in wet, puddly spots nearby. Alpinobombus is the subgenus that includes Bombus balteatus, B. polaris, B. hyperboreus, B. alpinus & B. neoboreus, and they are the largest bumble bees I have ever seen in my life. With such great bee activity, especially in the Alpinobombus, we stuck around the Eagle Summit area, collecting and processing bees, and collecting plant pollen and herbarium vouchers.
In the early afternoon we got hit with another large rain and hailstorm, so we spent a couple hours in the truck riding it out (which mostly just meant snacking and napping, and occasionally looking nervously at the tents for signs of inundation). Alan did some creative water management (think channels dug by foot to re-direct water, like you do at the beach) mid-storm, but all the tents were at least a little wet or puddly inside. After the storm we found a bunch of bedraggled-looking bees who had ridden out the storm on flowers, and were able to catch some who had hidden better, but were the first out to forage when the sun cleared. Despite the mid-day storm it was still a remarkably productive collecting day. Alan and I even flushed some ptarmigan while collecting bees!
We aired out and moved the tents around, processed the rest of the bees, and called it a night.
Day 11 Arctic Circle to White Mountains 7/8
We continued our southbound trek today, headed close to Fairbanks then veering northeast of the city along the Steese Highway to check out some previous collection sites of Bombus polaris at tundra sites in the White Mountains. On the way we stopped just north of Beaver Slide, a large hill on the Dalton, to collect bees on sweet clover while waiting for a huge oversized load to come down the hill on a trailer. The Dalton, while somewhat accessible to tourists with the right vehicle, is still primarily the haul road for equipment to get from Fairbanks to Deadhorse or construction sites along the highway. As such, sometimes we had to pull over to let large and/or fast semi trucks pass us, especially on muddy or pothole-filled sections of the road. We saw a number of motorcyclists and even bicyclists on the Dalton, but given the truck traffic I’d be hesitant to take on that road on a bike or motorcycle.
We stopped for delicious burgers and puppy cuddles (always) at Yukon River Camp, and saw a pair of moose (Michelle’s first!) as we continued southbound. We stopped for gas, snacks and internet (all the important things) before reaching the Dalton/Elliott – Steese intersection and heading east into the White Mountains. We camped at Cripple Creek Campground, collecting some bumble bees on fireweed and on two new-to-us species of Pyrola (Pyrolaceae, wintergreen family).
Day 10 Franklin Bluffs to Arctic Circle 7/7
This morning some red foxes came to check out our camp, likely attracted to the smell of oatmeal and previous experiences of scrounging food from people camping there. They were beautiful, and one was still shedding its fluffy winter coat from its tail. From here on out we’re southbound, retracing our steps and sampling at previous sites or new potential sites depending on what we collected on the drive up.
We also added our first caribou to the wildlife list, a lone female whose graceful travel through the tussocky landscape awed us all now that we’ve all stumbled and lumbered through that uneven, lumpy landscape.
We made a brief stop at Toolik for some coffee, internet and water, then continued southbound. After driving through Atigun Pass we stopped at Chandalar Shelf just south of the pass (or as we like to call it, the Shelf of Chandalar – it has a certain fantastic ring to it). Bees were aplenty, and we collected and processed the bees there in the parking lot. Not bad scenery for field work and “field-sterile” sample processing. We even found some bees with dark, funky-looking guts and some very weird possible nematodes in one of the collection tubes. More stuff to investigate and figure out when we’re back in the lab.
We also collected bees on fireweed, yarrow (Achillea millefolium) and white sweet clover (Melilotus alba) in the Coldfoot Camp parking lot, a spot we’d stopped before but hadn’t collected. Finally we ended the day back at our camp in Arctic Circle, taking full advantage of the picnic table to process samples and experience what felt like rather plush (and relatively mosquito-free) camping at this point.
Day 9 Franklin Bluffs to Deadhorse and back 7/6
We woke up early today to drive to Deadhorse so Bren could do the Prudhoe Bay tour. The Dalton Highway ends in Deadhorse, and beyond the town the road access is restricted to oil company personnel due to pipeline accessibility. Anyone wanting to see or touch the Arctic Ocean in Prudhoe Bay must pay for a tour through the oil field to get to the ocean. While Bren did the tour (and got a certificate for going in the water) we hung out in Deadhorse, collecting bees off of Oxytropis along the Sagavanirktok (Sag) River. We found a good number of bees and stuck around for a while to collect. After a gift shop stop we said goodbye to Jim and Katie, dropping our numbers to 5 – Hollis, Bren, Alan, Michelle, and me (Kristal). We then headed back through Dalton Highway construction to Franklin Bluffs. In a rare moment of actually receiving a radio signal we listened to John Denver’s song “Thank God I'm a Country Boy” – this song would surface repeatedly in the next few days, getting stuck in nearly everyone’s head for some time.
We collected more bumble bees off of Hedysarum a mile north of Franklin Bluffs, then returned to our campsite to process the bees from Deadhorse and the site we dubbed "N of Franklin Bluffs". We opted for a dinner of pancakes and maple syrup, and went to bed early – it had been a long day and the wind was really whipping. In the land of the midnight sun it doesn’t work to wait until dark before going to bed; instead you just have to declare a bedtime and hope that your eye mask blocks out the light and/or you are tired enough to not care about the sun shining through the tent.
Day 8 Toolik to Franklin Bluffs 7/5
This was our last morning at Toolik. Given the good internet connection and facilities, Jim & Katie set up to broadcast a Facebook Live interview with Hollis for the NY Times Science section. The interview went well, and had over 98,000 hits.
After the interview we loaded up to continue north along the Dalton. On the drive we stopped to watch 9+ muskoxen grazing on willows and forbs near the side of the road. They were smaller than bison, but still formidable with large curving horns and a long silky fringe of hair hanging down. It was so cool to see them in the wild, doing their thing.
At Franklin Bluffs we found lots of Hedysarum alpinum, locoweed and fireweed, and bumble bees foraging! We were excited to find bees again, including some possible Bombus polaris individuals. We set up camp on this somewhat-windy gravel pad which was originally constructed for staging equipment for the Pipeline, but now hosts some road-construction materials and teams, and is a handy place to camp off the soggy tundra and near the road. We said goodbye to Jessica, Sean and Jeff as they headed southbound – Jeff and Sean to return to UCR, and Jessica to continue sampling Formica ants near Fairbanks. It felt weird to lose some of our team members, but we had a good run with them and will check back in once we’re back in Riverside.
Day 7 - Toolik on Independence Day, 7/4
Today was Field Station day. We sent two teams out collecting, and my team went out to the Kuparuk River. We spotted a total of 3 bumble bees, but only managed to catch one foraging on Oxytropis campestris. We also saw some dwarf fireweed (Chamerion latifolia) flowering, along with Arnica sp. and bog rosemary (Andromeda polifolia). The bumble bees seem to be very sparse near Toolik and we’re not sure if this is the usual state of affairs for bumble bees here or if this is a weird year. We were told that the spring was unusually warm to begin, followed by periods of intense cold and some snow, leading to two periods of nest initiation in birds, both of which failed for many species due to cold and snow killing the eggs or hatchlings. As such we were seeing very few fledglings or territorial behaviors, a notable absence observed by Alan Brelsford, our team’s most bird-savvy member.
Some researchers deploying pan traps around Toolik to identify insect prey for local birds heard that we were interested in any bee data from the area, and brought us their bumble bee bycatch. Michelle and I worked on drying the bumble bees for identification while The Profs (Hollis, Jess, Alan, Jeff) took over a room with couches and whiteboards and talked science and grant proposals for a while. Once the bees were prepped, Michelle identified them and we realized we had a Bombus polaris individual, collected less than a week before our arrival! We celebrated our find with Instagram posts, toasts, and foosball games. Not a bad way to spend the 4th of July.
Day 5 - Marion Creek to Galbraith Lake 7/2
We left Marion Creek, heading for Atigun Pass. On the way to Atigun Pass we saw a beautiful white wolf! We stopped to watch it for a little while until it walked into the trees and vanished from sight. At the top of Atigun Pass we found a bunch of tiny Arctic flowers (Dryas, Claytonia, Papaver, Draba) but sadly no bees. Once through the pass we stopped at a windy gravel pad for lunch and bee scouting, but despite lots of Oxytropis (locoweed) we found no bees there either. We opted to continue onward toward Galbraith Lake, and stopped near the pipeline where we caught a few bees foraging on Hedysarum alpinum. We finished the day at Galbraith Lake, where the mosquito population was downright spectacular near the lake. Fortunately the numbers declined a bit with distance from the lake, so we camped near the pit toilet rather than in the cloud of bloodsuckers.
Day 6 - Galbraith Lake to Toolik Field Station 7/3
In the morning we dispersed to search for bees around Galbraith Lake. The scenery was gorgeous, and provided a lovely backdrop to morning field work. We collectively caught 2 bumble bees, but missed a couple of others. We noticed that the bees here were nest-searching rather than foraging, ducking between rocks and into holes in the ground.
After packing up we doubled back south, stopping at the Atigun River and south of Holden Creek. At the river we saw tundra swans fly overhead, and collected a very large Bombus insularis (a socially parasitic bumble bee!) queen. South of Holden Creek I found some sweat bees (Halictus) foraging on Potentilla, and Jessica caught a Bombus occidentalis queen. The bees are much more sparse so far north of the Brooks Range, and we’re only seeing occasional individuals.
We headed north to Toolik Field Station, where we had a feast of party leftovers (steak! crab legs!) for lunch before orientation and another (fruitless but beautiful) collecting bout on a tussock-y hillside north of Toolik. We ended the day with a delicious dinner and refreshing time in the sauna.
Day 3 - Arctic Circle 6/30
We spent the day in and near Arctic Circle. Bumble bees were foraging on the fireweed (Chamerion angustifolium, Onagraceae) right around camp. The dominant species were Bombus mixtus & frigidus. After a bout of catching nearby bees we ventured down to Fish Creek just south of camp to collect more bees. We found a bunch of repeat species on the fireweed, and another target species (Bombus occidentalis) visiting the wild rose (Rosa acicularis). Some of our crew also ventured up to more open tundra-like habitat to get oriented with the vegetation up there. We did more bee collecting and processing, and were getting into more of a camp routine by the end of the day.
Day 4 - Arctic circle to Marion Creek (Coldfoot) 7/1
We packed up camp and headed out, stopping along the Dalton Highway to collect more bees, mostly visiting alpine sweetvetch (Hedysarum alpinum, Fabaceae). We saw wolf prints, and collected three species of ants in the genus Formica. We stopped for gas in Coldfoot, then set up camp at Marion Creek. There were very few flowers blooming in and around the campground, so we decided to check out a trail to a waterfall in hopes of finding more flowers and thus more bees. Unfortunately the trail got more boggy as we hiked and flowers were sparse up higher, so we didn’t go all the way to the waterfall. When we got back to camp we drove north from the campground and found a large patch of wild sweetpea (Hedysarum mackenzii, Fabaceae) with a lot of bumble bees! Jim Gorman and Katie Orlinksy, reporter and videographer with the NY Times, arrived around dinner and we chatted with them, updating them on our trip to date. After dinner a rainstorm kicked up, soaking a few tents and a number of us as we scrambled to get things packed away for the evening. Hollis and Michelle finished bee sample collection in the back of the BeeHemoth, grateful for the canopy but still cramped and a bit wet.