Lab Work: Pinning, labeling, and quality control

This internship alternates between being physically and intellectually demanding. Last week, I spent 4 out of my 5 work days doing fieldwork, sometimes doing 5 to 7-mile round-trip hikes often times with 1300-1700 ft. in elevation gain. While rewarding, our tundra sites are not always easy to access and often require treks entirely uphill, causing my poor left knee and respiratory system to take breaks every once in a while.

This week, I spent  4 out of my 5 work days labeling, pinning, and databasing hundreds of bees (and some syrphids). It may not sound like it, but reading tiny labels with size 8 font and matching them with cells on an Excel sheet requires some skill and intellectual endurance.

Bees, pre-sorting and labeling.

The insects that we were handling were all from previous samples (ex: summer 2016, summer 2017, etc.) and required us to pin labels on them so that we could keep track of:

  1. Where they were from (i.e. site, plot)
  2. When we collected them
  3. Their individual catalog numbers + QR codes

The process – locality labels on top, a QR code in the middle, and catalog numbers (upside-down) on the bottom.

While we were labeling the samples, my supervisor Jessica spent a lot of her time identifying them by species, sex, and caste (i.e. queen vs. worker bee). When she was done, we had to put all of that information into the Excel database as well. This put a little strain on our eyes, so Jessica would sometimes let us escape the dim office lights for a little bit and go hand-collecting in the park.

After catching a syrphid with a hand net, we had to put it into a cyanide tube. Unfortunately, the only way to identify small insects like bees and syrphids is under a microscope, requiring us to kill our catches.

On the one day where we didn’t have to do labeling + databasing, we actually had the opportunity to engage with the public. We got to host a 6-person youth-group for a day, which was exciting! We went out collecting with them, showed them our Healy forest site, and even set up a mini-laboratory for them to look at their catches up close. They were a wonderful group of kids and were so into it – my heart was so happy seeing high school-aged kids getting into science, asking all kinds of questions regarding insects and their habitats.

So far, I think my favorite aspect of this internship is that it doesn’t just focus on one particular task – it constantly fluctuates between field work, lab work, and outreach. I’ve been able to hike deep in the park, look at bees under microscopes, attend Resources meetings with other park staff, teach high school kids cool facts about insects, and talk with staff outside of resources about the park’s relationship with native Alaskan communities. I can’t wait to do more of this in the weeks to come!

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