Cover Stories
The Buzz On Campus - Student researcher identifies bees that make TU their home


From March to October, Towson’s verdant campus is home to workers whose efforts go unnoticed—and perhaps unappreciated—by most faculty, staff and students.

Don’t count senior Cheyenne Owens among the oblivious.


“Surveying is the only way to understand how
diversity changes over time due to human activity.”
– Professor John LaPolla


A biology major in the Honors College and a self-described “eclectic ecologist,” Owens conducted TU’s first bee survey as part of an undergraduate research project. “I knew that a little more than 100 bee species had been recorded to date in Baltimore County,” she explains. “But no one had ever tried to find out which species were on campus.”

Cheyenne Owens sorts through bee samples. She processed more than 3,000 specimens during the course of the study.
Cheyenne Owens sorts through bee samples. She processed more than 3,000 specimens during the course of the study.

Owens has been interested in bees since high school, when she interned with wildlife biologist Sam Droege, director of the Native Bee Lab at the USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Beltsville, Md.

“Sam’s the one who got me into scientific research,” she says of her longtime mentor.

Curious about which bee species called TU home, Owens took her research project proposal to John LaPolla, associate professor of biology, who agreed to be her faculty adviser. LaPolla says he was impressed with her commitment—the survey required more than two years of sampling—as well as her research savvy. “It was a very nicely designed project,” he says. “I knew it could provide useful information about the local bee fauna and establish a baseline for future surveys.

“Surveying is the only way to understand how diversity changes over time due to human activity,” he explains.

With LaPolla’s guidance and support, Owens began the survey in the spring of 2012, setting out plastic collection cups at five carefully selected sites around TU’s 328-acre campus. The fluorescent blue, yellow, and white cups attracted bees, and the slippery, nontoxic fluid inside trapped and preserved their bodies.

Top: A pinned Nomada species, commonly known as the cuckoo bee, found at Towson University. Cuckoo bees lay their eggs in the nests of other bee species. 
Bottom: Several Bombus species, or bumblebees, in the Biodiversity Center insect collection.
Top: A pinned Nomada species, commonly known as the cuckoo bee, found at Towson University. Cuckoo bees lay their eggs in the nests of other bee species.
Bottom: Several Bombus species, or bumblebees, in the Biodiversity Center insect collection.

Owens collected the specimens once per week, driving to the campus from her home in Prince Georges County, Md., during the summers.

There were some setbacks, including the occasional cup shredded during grass mowings. “I just set out new ones and didn’t make a fuss,” Owens says. Paul Thomas, TU’s Landscape Services manager and himself a bee enthusiast, made sure his staff kept an eye out for the collection cups.

Owens also found that 95 bee species frequented the campus during the combined springs, with 20 species collected during the combined summers and 24 in the combined fall collection periods. “Spring is the busiest time for bees, with the largest species richness and highest diversity,” she says.

Her survey comes at a time of growing concern about declining European honeybee populations nationwide. “Bees are essential pollinators,” she says. “They’re easy to overlook, but we depend on them for our food supply.”

Owens presented her research in a poster session, “Bees Are Not Optional: Surveying the Bees of Towson University,” at the 12th Annual Colonial Academic Alliance Undergraduate Research Conference, held at TU in April.

Owens, who earned her bachelor’s degree in May, says she's waiting to hear from graduate schools. In the meantime, this eclectic ecologist won’t be resting on her laurels. She’ll be studying wood-eating catfish this summer with Jay Nelson, another TU biology professor.

By Jan Lucas. Photos by Kanji Takeno.
Top photo: John LaPolla and Cheyenne Owens work on the insect collection in the Towson University Biodiversity Center, located in Smith Hall.


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