Everyone loves a good underdog story, and when it comes to ecology and wildlife conservation, PhD student Stephanie Maher is no different. “We all know about honey bees and bumble bees, but these types only really account for 10% of the species we have in Britain. The rest are solitary bees, the real underdog of the bee world.”
Stephanie is an applied ecologist, someone whose research is rooted in scientific solutions, data and conservation. While always having an affinity for nature, when studying zoology, Stephanie started to become both academically and professionally interested in pulling apart her subject – getting down “into the nitty gritty.”
“I wanted to learn more about the impact of humans on the planet. Once I got a better understanding of that impact, I thought about my duty as a scientist and as a problem solver. If a problem exists, a scientist doesn't have to stand by and let it continue. We can do things to solve it.”
A fascination with solitary bees and specifically where they choose to nest, posed a particular challenge that needed solving, which led to the creation of The Solitary Bee Project at ARU.
The project thrives on a relatively new concept of citizen science. This form of crowd-sourced, or community-driven, data collection allows the general public to help answer important questions about the role solitary bees play in pollination and ecosystem biodiversity.
“Because there are so many solitary bees in the UK, it’d be near-impossible for me to go out and look for them and gather data on a meaningful scale” Stephanie tells us. “There’s a long history in the area I work in – Cambridgeshire, Norfolk, Suffolk – of people dedicating their time and energy into recording wildlife. The Solitary Bee Project taps into that and leverages it.”
By answering some simple questions on the project’s website whenever they see a bee nesting, the public are helping to form a national picture of where bee species will (and won’t) nest. Relying on the UK’s historic culture and network of amateur naturalists, Stephanie is able to step back and focus on validating the rich data, and selecting specific locations to analyse independently.
The level of public engagement so far has been phenomenal, and some interesting patterns are starting to appear. "One exciting finding is that solitary bees were found in short, newly cut grass; busting the myth that conservation thrives when the environment is left to its own devices, and indicating that wildlife and people can live harmoniously in urbanised areas."
Stephanie’s final thesis concerning the project is close to completion, and her findings will be applied to provide guidelines for land managers on things they can do to help the solitary bee. “I want to give real advice, grounded in empirical science, to people who run nature reserves, agriculturists, even people interested in gardening.”
But Stephanie’s dedication to the underdog won’t stop there. “This is me for the rest of my working life,” she asserts. “I see myself sticking with solitary bees. The thing I love most about research is that, when you ask one question, you often get 100 more back. There really is a lifetime of work to be done here.”