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The Epic Orchid Bee Quest of 2012

November 14, 2012

What do you do with a bug net, a vial of wintergreen essential oil, cotton swabs, and push pins, when you are in the middle of the Amazon rainforest?  If you are a curious explorer you design an experiment to investigate orchid bees of course!   Last summer that is exactly what happened when students and educators were set loose to design open-ended inquiry investigations of these fascinating and colorful hymenoptera.

male orchid bees taking the bait

Orchid bees are amazing, brilliantly colored little gems that buzz through rainforest clearings, light gaps, and canopies.  Male orchid bees are particularly fascinating because you can lure them into your line of sight using “scent baits.”  They go crazy for anything that smells like wintergreen, cinnamon, and eucalyptus.  Turns out they collect these scents and then, much like a perfumer, concoct a potent and alluring “eau de cologne” designed to attract as many female orchid bees as possible!  Setting up baits in the rainforest offers almost instant gratification – within minutes bees in iridescent blue, green, orange, and purple quickly make a bee-line for these precious aromatic compounds.  (Read More)

With a bare minimum of background information, our intrepid student researchers were given a pile of equipment and 20 minutes to design experimental questions related to orchid bee scent preferences.  WOW!  It was truly amazing to watch these students turn on and tune in!  The questions and ideas flew at a furious pace – references to the laws of chemistry, biology, and even physics were thrown into the mix.  Experiments from the simple to the sublime were set up around the ACTS field station and we expectantly sat back to wait for the arrival of orchid bees…and we waited…and we waited…and then we waited some more.  So much for instant gratification! Check out the video…this is what we hoped to observe!

With dark clouds gathering and the scent of rain filling the air, we were just about to give up hope when a suddenly several bees appeared at the baits.  We managed to net just one before the deluge began.  Back in the field lab, as the rain pounded down, we used a magnifying box to get an up close look at the beautiful emerald green bee we had captured.  For the remainder of the storm we discussed the ups and downs of science, the challenges of field biology, the inquiry process, and the importance of failure.  In this day and age, when answers are simply a “google” away, the lesson on perseverance and failure as a necessary part of the inquiry process was probably the most powerful.

At the end of the day as the skies cleared, the students were eager to try their luck as orchid bee wranglers once again.  As we headed to the canopy walkway, the scent of wintergreen wafted behind us as we carried our experiments to the tree tops.  Isn’t this what inquiry is all about?

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