Undergraduate Biology Student Researcher: Natalie Herbision

Natalie Herbison in a field with a bee catching net and vial.Natalie Herbison is a senior Ecology, Evolution, and Organismal Biology student who recently joined KU faculty, Victor Gonzalez, in Greece this summer for a National Science Foundation REU program on pollinators and climate change. Natalie was also selected to participate at the world-renowned Bee Course in Portal, Arizona which was funded in part by KU’s Entomology Endowment and the Ida H. Hyde Scholarship for Women from the Undergraduate Biology program.

So, Natalie, what was your experience studying abroad with the REU program like?

"We were studying bees on the Greek island of Lesbos for about seven weeks [during June & July], which was fantastic. They actually have about 600 different species of bees on this one island and the island itself can be driven across in 2 hours. There's massive biodiversity there.

As for doing research in a different country, we spent more time interacting with each other than we did with the locals. I think that's because a lot of people were like, ‘Ah, these kids are out there hopping fences’ [we had] to go collect stuff off of whatever was blooming because they were having a really bad drought. So, any time we found something blooming, we would pull the car over. We were like, “All right, it's time to go. We got to collect. We gotta see what we can get,” but it was fascinating. It was extremely exciting all of the time. And just like people in general, they were so nice and so helpful and friendly.

We lived at an organic hotel for the entire time we stayed there, and the owner of the hotel was a family group and they kind of adopted us. They would tease us, “Oh, we've over booked the rooms, you guys sleep outside.” They would make like these jokes with us like all the time […] and they were amazing.

We also did some work with the University of the Aegean in Mytilene, which is the main city on Lesbos, and they were super friendly as well. They were very eager to hear about the kinds of things that we were doing.

My lab group specifically was looking at physiological responses, and the lab at the university focused more on taxonomy and surveying. They were pretty excited to hear about the kinds of things that we were doing and the equipment that we were using. All the way around it was a really good experience for sure."

What kind of research were you doing on Lesbos?

"During this program of the National Science Foundation “Pollinators, Climate Change, and the Aegean Archipelago” we specifically looked at how different factors may influence bees' physiological responses to changing climate, particularly to temperature increases. A lot of what we did was thermal experimentation that measured what the Critical Thermal Maximum temperature the bees could withstand was under given conditions, like if they had been fed or not, put through an acclimation period, or if they were exposed to heat stress before experimentation. We also looked at Time to Heat Stupor for honeybees and some Halictid bees, which is essentially how long can bees be exposed to high temperatures before they lose metabolic control and shut down." 

Landscape photo of a field site in Greece, the scrubland butts up against the sea and you can see distant mountains of a separate island.

What did that mean for you in practice?

"99% of what we did was collect bees. We had six target species that we were working with, and we would go out and collect an approximate set number of bees per day. Then we would bring the bees back to the lab and we’d do five or six different experiments that utilized live bees.

We would keep some of the bees for less than an hour before we start testing and others, we'd have for upwards of two days before we started testing. We would bring all of the bees back to the lab and then we would run our experiments there.

The daily experiments could take anywhere from an hour and a half to five plus hours. So, a lot of times we would start our day at about 5:00 in the morning and end at 930 or 10:00 at night, because all of the bees that we were keeping for longer periods of time had to be fed two times a day. You would feed them once in the morning and then you had to do your other duties. We would do our experiments for the day and then after dinner we'd have to clean up and then feed the bees again and then we could finally be done. A lot of the time we had really, really long workdays, but it was really rewarding for sure."

It sounds like you didn’t have much free time…

"I think that we were on the island six and a half weeks, and we got three full days where we had nothing planned and even then, my lab group was just churnin’ and burnin’, [Even though] we had those days off we still chose to work--That was definitely us being ambitious. We did end up having evenings for ourselves […] or time between experiments to do yoga or go for a swim or take a nap.

I was fully expecting to be distraught about not having more free time, but we did have enough that we would travel to different places on the island in the evening. We would still get to go places and experience things and do touristy things, it just wasn't a full day off most of the time because we had to prioritize our research."

What was your favorite cultural experience in Greece?

"I honestly think the most exciting cultural experience for me was learning Greek from the locals. Everybody has Duolingo, right, and you go and do your little five-minute lesson for the day, and you're like, “Oh I’ve got it.” but you go abroad, and you try and order like a Coca Cola, and the locals are like, “Oh no, you did that completely wrong. You have to start over. Here's how you say it. I want you to say it back to me or else you're not going to get your drink.”

The Greeks are so helpful and just genuinely very, very friendly. The further we got into the summer the better we got at Greek and the more comfortable we got to say things and we talk to people, and they would be like, “You guys are American. How did you say that so well?” It's like, “because you were willing to help us, because you were willing to teach us your language and not be mad about it when we do make mistakes.”

How did you find out about the Bee Course and what did you get out of the experience?

"I found out about The Bee Course from a grad student of our lab, Andres Philippe Herrera. Andres took me under his wing when I first started working for Dr. Gonzalez. When I first started, I did not know I was studying bees, I came into the lab expecting to work on a photography project because our primary grant funding is digitizing the bee collection [at KU] because we have the largest collection in North America.

Andres saw that I was starting to develop an interest in bees, and he was like, “Hey, there's this course that they hold every summer in Arizona,” and he marketed it by saying, “you get to eat great Mexican food every day”, which was hysterical. That's not why I ended up going but I thought that was a good selling point. [We applied for it together] and Dr. Gonzales helped me write my application materials.

Really the biggest appeal of the Bee Course is it’s this highly intensive class, you have lectures and labs and things like that, but the instructors for the course are a panel of the most prestigious melittologists in North America. You have Terry Griswald, Bryan Danforth, Jason Gibbs -- all really big names in Bee biology that have done tremendous research. Some of them worked with Charles Michener himself, who was the forefather of modern bee science. You get to go there and learn from the best of the best and you get to start to build connections with other people that are in your field.

The course for me was about going and making connections and starting to plan out where I was going to go for graduate school. I'm going to get through my last semester and then hopefully immediately jump into a master's program in the fall. The biggest appeal for me was getting to go and meet other scientists and build those connections there.

Dr. Deborah Smith, [of KU’s Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology} has visiting entomologists and Dr. Sandra Rehan from New York University came in April and one of the things that really influenced my take on the Bee Course was Dr. Rehan saying that in melittology, there's about 20 people in a generation and you're with those 20 people forever.

I went into the Bee Course with the idea that I'm going to find the 20 people that are going to be my generation of biologists and build those connections and it worked. I'm actually writing a paper with two of the gentlemen that I met and will probably turn that out in the next couple of weeks. So, it's a really quick turnover time on those connections for sure."

Natalie holding a Falcon Tube with a collected bee in it at a field site in Arizona.

Can you tell us what the day-to-day research experience was like there?

"The primary purpose of the course is to learn the basics and the bare necessities about bees and how to identify them. The primary thing is if I show you this Bee that I just pulled off this bush, can you tell me what family it’s in?

We had two different day plans. One of them was a field trip day --We would head out right after breakfast around 8 a.m. and we would go out into the field and be unleashed on a site. We'd go out and collect bees for like 3 to 5 hours at a time, and then we would bring them back to the lab. On those days, we would have an afternoon lecture, then dinner and social hour and finish with an evening seminar.

On our primary lecture and lab workdays you'd have a lecture for an hour and then you have lab time until lunch, and then you'd have another lecture or demonstration after lunch and then lab time, social hour, dinner and then evening seminar.

So those days were much more relaxed. But I would go out and collect bees anytime I had free time. My personal days would go until midnight because I would stay in the lab for an additional like three or four hours. I wanted to utilize the time to capture as many bees as possible and learn as much as possible. It was definitely worth it."

What bee species did you find most often?

"It depended on where you were for the day. We operated out of the Southwestern Research Station, which is run by the American Museum of Natural History. The most common bees that I saw were in Tribe Eucerini, commonly known as long-horned bees. The one that I noticed the most were sweat bees from the genus Agapostemon, they're bright green bees and they're really easy to notice on yellow and pink flowers."

How did you first become interested in researching Bees?

"I came to KU to study paleontology, and I heard at orientation that there were student hourly jobs on campus. I had applied for a position at the Natural History Museum up at Dyche hall and for a position under Dr. Victor Gonzalez doing photography for the digitization of the bee collection here at KU. [I ended up with both jobs and when I came in for training with Dr. Gonzalez], we loaded up a random little bright green bee into the camera […] and I did my practice photo and I pulled it up on our largest monitor to see what I had done. I could see every pore, every pollen granule, every little hair, and I was mesmerized."

What do you feel you gained by doing these research experiences?

“It was extremely rewarding to do [the REU Program & Bee Course] and it intensified my passion and my urge to continue to study bees, because I got the opportunity to take an insider's look at what my life would be like a few years down the line if I continued to do this. I realized this is the kind of life that I want to live, I want to be doing research, I want to be a professor that tells people about bees in a class, specifically about bees, I want to keep doing this forever.”

Could you tell us about your research experience at KU?

"I briefly touched on it, but I did conduct an undergraduate research project under Drs. Deborah Smith and Victor Gonzalez on a native bee that's only active in the spring (Colletes inaequalis). For this research, I did thermal testing that measured both the Critical Thermal Minimum and the CTmax of males and females of the species, almost all of which I caught on campus grounds.  Dr. Gonzalez and I did comparative analyses to better understand how sex and body size may have shown a correlation to the temperatures the bees could withstand. I have plans to continue this research this coming spring semester when the bees are active again, this time looking at the impacts of urban hotspots on temperature tolerance."

What did you find most challenging about the REU or Bee Course?

"The hardest part about the REU was that I felt isolated a lot of the time. You're thrust into this brand-new environment where you're expected to operate at a really high level all the time, but you don't know any of the people or you don't speak the local language. You can form bonds with your roommate and the people that you work with in your lab but it's not quite the same as going out and grabbing a drink with your friends or seeing a movie with your significant other. I was definitely missing my friends and my family back home, and that for me was the most difficult thing.

For the Bee Course I felt like I had no clue what I was doing. Not necessarily in the studying or the lab work, but when I would go out into the field with the other students. I was one of three undergraduate students in the program and everybody else had masters, Ph.D. or are an established researcher, so I would catch something. I'd be like,’ Oh, I think this is this gen us’. And they'd be like, ‘Oh, no, you're actually way off’, and at the beginning I think I internalized that a bit more than I probably needed to. I felt like I knew nothing, even though I've been working so hard all summer, I still know literally nothing. I had to turn [that mindset] around a couple of days in.  I told myself ‘Okay, I know nothing, so let's keep learning as much as possible.’

So, the hardest thing was only the hardest thing for a couple of days and then after that, it was just trying to keep hydrated in the desert."

Do you have any advice to offer to other students?

"I would tell other students to just keep at it. You are going to feel so underqualified for everything forever. That never changes. You're going to think, ‘Oh my God, I know nothing. Why am I going to do this? Why should I do this?’ But if you have an interest in something, even if it's only like the tiniest spark, you should pursue it and see what happens. A few years ago, I learned the saying “If you never ask, the answer's always no.” and that is definitely applicable for research and traveling experiences and things like that. If you never put yourself out there and go for it, even if you're afraid of getting what you perceive as a negative answer back, you're never going to get it. Because if you don't take that first step in applying for the program or reaching out to the professor who could be your advisor, or applying for a job that you think is just going to be a part time thing that eventually becomes your entire existence--If you don't take those steps, then the answer is always going to be, No, you can't do that. So, my biggest advice for other students is to go for it."

Natalie rock climbing Do you have anything else you would like to share about yourself?

"I had been active in the new climbing club or climbing team, for my entire time at KU, so this is my fourth semester. I’m a huge fan of rock climbing and hiking and snowboarding. I'm kind of just a fan of being outside in general, and I think that had a really big impact in my interest in science from the get-go. My mom and I spent a lot of time outside when I was growing up and her handing me turtles or toads that she'd pick up out of the yard, was one of those things that I didn't even realize was turning me into the person I am."

What do you plan to do after you graduate from KU?

"I'm planning to pursue my Ph.D. immediately after completing my bachelor's at KU. I'm aiming for Utah State University. They have one of the most renowned bee labs in the United States and I want to be in it.

So that's my goal. That's what I'm aiming for. I need to start my application. I've been considering recently taking a gap year and doing a Conservation Corps program. I'm definitely planning to jump straight to my Ph.D. either this fall or next fall, depending on if I decide to do that conservation program."