Pollinator survey at Emerald Lake discovers Bombus at work inside the hood of Aconitum delphinifolium. (Photo by Anya Bronowski/USFWS)

Pollinator survey at Emerald Lake discovers Bombus at work inside the hood of Aconitum delphinifolium. (Photo by Anya Bronowski/USFWS)

Refuge Notebook: A summer on the refuge — Valuing a wildflower to the value of a system

I’ve never been one to be partial to favorites. But, on an overcast and rain bath morning in mid-July, while walking with one of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge’s biologists, Matt Bowser, I watched a bumblebee working its way into the perfect opening of the monkshood (Aconitum delphinifolium). It reminded me that monkshood has always been my favorite wildflower.

Maybe this favorite was born in part from nostalgia. A flower I first saw in the lush, rainy summers of my formative years working in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado. Enjoyed while enduring the weather and arduous nature of clearing trails in the Weminuche and South San Juans with backcountry work partner, crosscut saw and ax in tow.

More likely, the fondness came from the magical shape of the flower, the “hood” shape, which was and still continues to be AMAZING to me! And who could not wax poetic on the deep purple hue of its color? I don’t remember being entranced by the hood with respect to pollinators back then, but I certainly am now.

Since returning, after nearly a decade of absence working in Alaska as a public land seasonal employee, I have never seen monkshood anywhere with so much profusion as in this state. I became elated by different trips across Alaska, seeing them everywhere I went along with their pollinators.

Along the banks of the Jack River on the south side of the Alaska range, the majestic valley of the Arrigetch, the bare volcanic tundra slopes above Lake Clark’s Twin Lakes, and at present, still in awe, in the meadows off the shores of Emerald Lake in the refuge, and on the road to Stormy Lake near Nikiski.

I can watch the bees dance to each flower for hours, fitting in just as it should be. I began to wonder if these perfect hoods required equally specific and perfect pollinators, especially if one reflects that the monkshood is toxic to people and animals.

While watching it wiggle in the protected shelter of the hood to collect the pollen, I asked Matt, “Are there specific pollinators for specific plants in Alaska?”

I learned from Matt that insect pollinators are primarily generalists and not specialists. Generalists can visit a variety of flowers and not be limited to a specific group of flowers. This trait is favored in places like Alaska, where there is less plant diversity.

However, put into perspective, as one gets closer to the equator, say, the tropical rainforest, there is more plant diversity. Thus, similar species may be spaced farther apart from one another. In these instances, it takes a specialist pollinator system to move pollen among members of the same plant species.

As we looked out into the serene boreal forest fresh from the wetting rains with birch, red elderberries, and monkshood glistening, we were met by the beautiful hum of the bee. Matt explained that the bulk of the plants we see around us are wind pollinated.

While, at first, it sounded to me like the wind can do more to spread plant life here than the sheer numbers of pollinators, I also learned that some plants rely on insect pollinators for seed and fruit production.

My mind was “marinating.”

Why does the bee get all the glory? What about the underdog? What would change our perceptions of appreciating the diversity among insect pollinator species? Is it information and education that is needed, or is it observation and admiration?

Will science help us to appreciate not just the charismatic pollinator but also the less charismatic and often overlooked insect pollinators? Is knowledge from the charismatic enough to sufficiently capture the needs of the underdog?

I was enlisted to work on pollinator surveys this season because there is a need for more data on most pollinator species in Alaska. This information includes where they are found (distribution), their numbers (relative abundance), and the dependence between a species and its environmental variables (habitat associations). The importance of survey work is, at minimum, two-fold.

In the broader scope, the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge follows sampling protocol for a larger umbrella program through the Alaska Center for Conservation Science. This effort involves coordination with the University of Alaska Anchorage and even larger national and international entities.

Check out the scoop in the Alaska Bee Atlas. https://accs.uaa.alaska.edu/wp-content/uploads/Alaska-Bee-Atlas_Protocol-and-Plan-2022.pdf.

UAA and ACCS primarily focus on bee pollinators, and biologists on the refuge are helping to provide them with occurrence data within high priority habitats. These include post-fire and high alpine areas that are harder to reach than the low priority areas for surveys across the refuge lands.

For the refuge, this 2022 season, we will add to the bank of occurrence data we have on the suite of invertebrate pollinators. Our goal is to get data on what is currently out there so we can identify, track and manage for change.

As many know, pollinators in other parts of the country are in decline. Fortunately, as far as we know, that is not the case in Alaska. But more long-term data will add to that knowledge bank.

One of the tenets of the management of this refuge is maintaining our biodiversity. Matt’s words are in my ear, “How can we protect the biodiversity if we do not know what is here?” The pollinator surveys fits well as it continues efforts to document what is here in order to conserve biodiversity.

Of the work I participated in this summer, this focus on expanding knowledge on the diversity of invertebrate pollinators is what excites me most! The introduction of this article illustrates where I watched the bumblebee dance with monkshood, that I, like most people, equate pollination with bees.

While bees are more efficient pollinators and very important to the interconnected web, other insects contribute more to pollination because of their sheer numbers. Your regular house fly, the female mosquito that gives you an itchy bump, moths, beetles and even the bad reputation wasp. By sampling bees, we can learn far more about these lesser-known and often overlooked pollinators.

Anya Bronowski is a seasonal biological technician at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. She has spent the last two decades working on public lands in the Lower 48 & Alaska. Since being on the Kenai Peninsula, she continues to enjoy finding spaces to entertain curiosities about the natural world and tune into those observations and delights of the non-human world and our relationships with it. Find more Refuge Notebook articles (1999–present) at https://www.fws.gov/kenai-refuge-notebook.

Aconitum delhinifolium in the boreal forest of the Kenai Peninsula in the rainy morning. (Photo by Anya Bronowski/USFWS)

Aconitum delhinifolium in the boreal forest of the Kenai Peninsula in the rainy morning. (Photo by Anya Bronowski/USFWS)

Pilot and biologist Dom Watts collects bees at Twin Lakes as part of the refuge’s pollinator survey. (Photo by Matt Bowser/USFWS)

Pilot and biologist Dom Watts collects bees at Twin Lakes as part of the refuge’s pollinator survey. (Photo by Matt Bowser/USFWS)

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