Morning in the Sonoran Desert

It was an exciting weekend for Tucson and its natural wonders.  Each year, National Geographic and the U.S. Park Service choose a park in which to hold a BioBlitz, a 24-hour frenzy of biological documentation, collection, and mayhem.  The event has several goals, but it gets a giant hoard of non-scientists involved in performing a massive biological survey (it’s a citizen science project!), brings positive attention to the national parks and the services they provide, and creates a list of species that are found in the parks where the BioBlitzes take place.    This year, Tucson’s own Saguaro National Park was chosen for this event!  Over the past 12 months or so, scientists have been volunteering to lead non-scientists out into Saguaro to collect and/or document the life forms that they are most familiar with.  More recently, citizen scientists could look through a very long list of surveying activities and sign up to participate in as many as they wished.  Last Friday and Saturday, the two groups came together and several thousand people went out into the desert to work!

My sister is a park ranger, currently at the Grand Canyon, so the BioBlitz in Arizona was a really big deal to the people she works with.  Some of her friends and co-workers came down to Tucson to work at the event this weekend, but she was not one of them.  She decided to come down anyway, however, and participate as a citizen scientist.  I let her choose an event for us and, much to my pleasure, she settled on a bee survey.  So, Saturday morning found us getting up way too early in the morning, picking up some breakfast at a local deli, and driving out to Saguaro West to survey bees.


The survey team, walking between traps

The BioBlitz headquarters, and many of the events, were located at Saguaro West on the west side of the Tucson Mountains.  Due to the lack of parking there, participants had to park at Old Tucson Studios and ride a shuttle to the park.  My sister and I parked at 7:30 AM, leaving what we thought would be plenty of time to get to our bee survey before 8 AM.  Not so much!  By the time we signed in (and there was a whopping one person in front of us – and 3 volunteers behind the table), signed our liability waivers, and climbed onto a big yellow school bus for the ride over to the park, it was 7:50.  It was 8 AM by the time we got to the park.  We asked where we needed to go and were directed to the wrong place.  By the time we finally figured out where we were really supposed to go, it was already 8:15 and we were sure we had missed it.  It was crazy how long everything took!  Thankfully, our group was just heading out when we arrived, so we joined in and marched out into the desert to collect bees from traps that had been laid out overnight.

sample cups

The plastic cups that were used as bee traps

The traps ended up being very simple, though our group leader, a pollination biologist for the US Fish and Wildlife Service in Flagstaff AZ, has used them for many years for his work with great success.  Each stop had two 2 ounce disposable plastic condiment cups, one blue and one yellow.  The colors apparently mimic the colors of flowers and lure the bees in from the surrounding area.  The cups were filled with a mixture of soapy water and propylene glycol.  The soap in the water decreases the surface tension so that, when the bees try to sip the “nectar” from the “flowers,”  they tend to slip into the cups.  The propylene glycol acts as a killing agent and preservative so that the bees can’t get back out once they fall in.

our route

The desert along the route we took, from the science building to the base of the mountains and back, about 2 miles altogether.

Our job was to check each trap at about 30 stops ranging over a mile of desert.  At each stop, we would pour the contents through a strainer to separate the insects, transfer the insects from the strainer to a sample bag, and then refill the cups for the afternoon group that would be doing the whole thing all over again.  As we went, our very amiable scientist told all sorts of amusing stories about sampling and citizen science projects he’s run/participated in, and the crazy people he sometimes encounters in the process.  The morning was a reasonable temperature, the people in the group were very excited about getting involved, and the walk was lovely, so it was a surprisingly pleasant way to spend the morning.


Processing samples. The bees were removed from the sample container before being washed and dried for pinning.

Once we got back to the base camp, we watched as our guide washed and dried the bees we had collected before he showed us an example of bees he’d pinned from the samples other surveyors had collected the day before.  And then, just like that, our 2 hour bee survey was over and we left our guide with the much more difficult task of pinning, identifying, and labeling all the specimens we’d collected – all before the end of the event later that day.

Apart from the obvious organizational difficulties that resulted in our being late to our event (one of my sister’s ranger friends who worked at the event – a woman who is a very soft-spoken and proper lady – described the event as “one huge clusterf***), I was really impressed by the BioBlitz!  There were a ton of activities to choose from, ranging from quick and easy projects like the one I participated in to much more rigorous projects that involved miles of hard-core hiking in mountainous terrain.  The day was beautiful.  We got swag – good swag!  And I got to spend a morning with my fabulous little sister, an entomologist (granted, I do that all the time), and 3 very nice strangers doing science in one of the most beautiful places in the world.  It was a wonderful experience, and one I highly recommend if you happen to be lucky enough to live near a national park that is home to a BioBlitz in the future.


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