Ecologist encourages connection to science through work with plants and pollinators

Because of its botanic garden status, the MU campus is an attractive and inviting destination for prospective students and provides a relaxing and inspirational setting for students as they work on their degrees.

Candace Galen

MU Professor of Biological Sciences Candace Galen

In addition to this value-added function, one of Mizzou Botanic Garden’s (MUBG) goals is to support campus educational programs such as MU Professor of Biological Science Candace Galen’s, senior capstone course “Life of a Garden”.

“Looking around, it seemed obvious,” Galen said of her choice to incorporate different subsets of MUBG’s named and thematic gardens into the course.

As part of their coursework, groups of four to six students adopt one of MUBG’s gardens where they spend a half-hour of each 90-minute class.

“Students choose gardens that are meaningful to them,” Galen said.

Each group designs a small garden-centric research project. Individual students choose a plant/tree growing in the garden, document its development and also research its ethnobotanical history. In addition to putting together and submitting a field guide, the group shares results, observations and recommendations on-site with the entire class and campus landscaping staff at the end of the semester.

“The gardens enrich the class as a student experience,” Galen said.

Galen's class

Professor Candace Galen poses with her Spring 2019 “Life of a Garden” class after the last student group’s presentation in their “adopted” garden

Research buzz

Galen was grew up in Portland, Ore. As a kid, she spent a lot of time outdoors and always knew she wanted a career with a connection to nature. She decided to focus on pollinators as an undergraduate at Reed College when she chose her senior thesis topic. She attended graduate school at UT-Austin and did a post-doc in Toronto.

On the faculty at MU for thirty years, Galen has engaged many students in her research projects, and in one case, enlisted the help of grade school citizen scientists.

“When I first got here, I was looking more closely at the evolution of flowers and their adaptations to pollinators and predators but have shifted to the environmental pressures on wild pollinators,” Galen said. “I’m most interested in bumblebees. Honeybees get all the press but wild bees — bumblebees and solitary bees — are suffering too.”

Tools for remote data collection have played a role in Galen’s work to potentially manage the future of essential pollinator populations, now in decline.

“Acoustic monitoring tools can track bee movements. We use little flash drives. A sound recorder is at one end and a data recorder is at the other,” she said.

Galen and her student research assistants jokingly call their drives USBee sticks.

“We can’t tell to species level who is doing the buzzing, but we can track the number of buzzes,” she said. The research has shown that, in the case of wild clover, a greater number of buzzes indicate increased seed production.

“Now we’re trying to look at more stages in the life cycle of bees.”

Long Tongued Bumble Bee

Long-tongued bumble bee queens of Bombus balteatus visit flowers of the alpine skypilot Polemonium viscosum. These large bees have a distinctive flight buzz, the bee version of a cargo-plane flying from flower to flower.
Photo courtesy of Zoe Moffett, Colorado College

Galen explained that honeybee behavior and specialization is well documented. But other less social bees’ behavior is less specialized and notoriously difficult to track. Her research team is experimenting with building “bee boxes” — enticing habitats for less social, smaller colonies of bees. Boxes are fitted with microphones to track insects’ comings and goings.

“Bees have an acoustic signature,” Galen said. “They come in quiet in the distance and grow louder once they’re there. We can tell how often they come and go, and travel distances.

“There is an encyclopedia of sounds. Through observation we can recognize and automate them,” she said. “With our software and hardware, there are a number of sounds we can identify.”

Results of the research, much of which is conducted in Colorado, are significant enough for Galen's research team to qualify for grant funding to expand the project.

“We’re interested in working with people who have orchards and farms, looking at landscape interventions that support native pollinators,” Galen said.

Bees in the dark

On August 21st, 2017 a total solar eclipse traveled across the United States. With funding from the American Astronomical Society, Galen engaged fourth and fifth graders in Columbia — along with others in Oregon and Idaho — to track bee behavior during the rare occurrence of total darkness in the middle of the day.

“Though they continued flying from flower to flower as it grew darker, the bees went silent during totality,” Galen said. “With the help of my grad students, the kids analyzed and evaluated the data.”

Research results published in the Annals of the Entomological Society of America earned national attention.

Busy bee

Galen is toying with the idea of retirement, but has no intention of ending her pollinator research. She also intends to travel more and has a few projects in mind, including involvement in the Osher Institute, an MU learning opportunity for the over-50 crowd. She also is working on three books and indicated one might be about her “Life of a Garden” course.

“I’d love to teach a senior seminar restoring MU’s Japanese garden, she said. “It would take some research to restore it but it would so neat.”

Story by Jan-Wiese-Fales