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Bee Ecologist

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What is your job description?Margarita Lopez
I am a biologist. At the moment, I’m an intern at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) working on Barro Colorado Island (Panama). In the fall, I will start my PhD in the Entomology program at Cornell University.

What do you study now?
My main research interest is behavior, ecology and evolution of bees. During my internship at STRI, I have been studying the foraging behavior of the nocturnal sweat bees Megalopta genalis and M. ecuadoria (Halictidae). Because most bees are usually active during the day, bee’s eyes are adapted to diurnal habits. It has been noticed that Megalopta bees, due to their nocturnal habits, have very severe limitations concerning the light levels for their foraging activity and they are pushing very close to the limits of what physically is possible. Basically, I’m looking at two things about their foraging behavior. The first one is the effect that changes in light levels (due to different seasons or to the phase of the moon) have on the foraging times of these bees. The second one refers to their body size. If light is a limiting factor for the foraging behavior of these bees, smaller females with smaller eyes, will capture fewer photons, and so there should be an effect of body size with respect to foraging times. So, in general the purpose of this study is a detailed look at foraging times of bees of different body sizes, with respect to changes in light levels conditions.

Orchid BeeFor my PhD research I’m going to look at the phylogeographic patterns of the orchid bee species of the genus Eulaema in the Amazon basin and Choco biogeographical region. The Amazon basin is one of the most biodiverse places in the world. One of the hypotheses proposed to explain this high biodiversity is the existence of quaternary refuges that kept isolated different regions of the Amazons. These regions, isolated from each other for thousands of years, were centers of speciation that after climate changed became one ecosystem bringing together all the biodiversity from different regions into one. Reconstructing the phylogeographic history of the Eulaema orchid bees will allow me to see if their high biodiversity in the Amazon basin is actually due to the existence of these refuges during the Quaternary Era or if other hypothesis can be proposed to explain it. The Choco biogeographical region is also important to understand the speciation patterns of these bees due to the presence of endemic species of orchid bees in this region and to its isolated geographic location.

What is the best thing about your job?
Being able to do what I like. I really enjoy my job and that’s because I’m passionate about bees. I have fun studying these insects and that makes me happy. I think this is the best of my job, I have fun working.

Orchid BeeWhat is the worst thing about your job?
There are two things that I don’t like about my job. The first one is that sometimes you have to disturb animals in order to study them, which brings a very serious ethical issue to this job. The other thing is not being able to explain to non-biologist the importance of doing basic biology science. Even though most of the time basic science does not have a direct application, it is necessary to develop applied science in the future.

What inspired you to first study science?
Since I was in school, I was always interested in trying to explain things. I was amazed when I read things about how scientists were able to find out all kind of things through observation and experiments. I wasn’t born a biologist. By that I mean I had little knowledge about natural history because during my childhood I hardly had contact with nature. But I was always curious about science, and now I think studying biology gave me the opportunity to do science but also be in contact with nature, which is one of the wonders of life.

What do you do in a typical day?
Orchid BeeFor my field work here on BCI, I get at 4:30 am, go to the forest to set up video cameras at the entrance of Megalopta nests and film the bees leaving and coming back during their morning foraging period (5:00-7:00). I go to field again at dusk (18:00-19:15) for the time of their night foraging period. During the day, I’m watching videotapes, measuring bee heads and looking for new nests to film.

What advice would you give to someone interested in becoming a biologist?
I think the most important thing to become a biologist is to be passionate about what you do. Therefore, my advice to new biologist is first of all trying to have a broad view of what this field by talking to other biologist (students, professors) and reading about it to find out something that really motivates you to do research. Being a biologist is not only a job, it is a life style. Enjoy what you do and be persistent, that’s the key to success.

Watch Margarita in a fun video about Cane Toad Racing on BCI:


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