Small climates, big questions

Dr. Kazenel first came to Gothic in 2013 as a student in RMBL’s Education Program. She did what nearly everyone else does when they first encounter RMBL. She fell in love — with the mountains, the science, and just about everything else. Then she came back in 2014 and 2015 to do her master’s degree research, advised by RMBL alumna Dr. Jennifer Rudgers. In 2022, she earned her PhD in biology with Jennifer Rudgers and Dr. Kenneth Whitney as advisors, studying bees in desert ecosystems of New Mexico.

Then in 2022, she applied for and received a position as a postdoctoral researcher with the RMBL Phenology Project, where she worked with Dr. Becky Irwin, an RMBL scientist who has been monitoring bee populations near Gothic since 2009.

As fate would have it, Dr. Kazenel got a faculty position at Earlham College in Richmond, IN, teaching such courses as ecological biology, biological diversity, and field botany. Now she has come back to RMBL as a Principal Investigator with students working as research assistants, and she mentors a student through the RMBL Education Program.

Dr. Kazenel feels very fortunate to have come full circle with RMBL. We feel equally fortunate to have this bright young scientist doing research at Gothic, especially considering the importance of her work.

What bees know

Broadly speaking, Dr. Kazenel’s research focuses on native bees and the interactions between plants and pollinators. More specifically, she wants to understand the consequences of climate change for plants, insect pollinators, and their interactions. Knowing what makes plant and pollinator communities shift across time and space could help scientists predict the future of pollination. Which in effect equals the future of food.

We know that biodiversity in insect pollinators is critical, and many scientists have been looking at how global climate change is affecting it. But little research has been done on how the composition and phenology (the timing of biological events) of plant communities and their pollinators are being shaped by microclimates. Dr. Kazenel has been working to fill this knowledge gap at RMBL, making use of sites at which Dr. Ian Breckheimer has been documenting microclimate variation.

If you think of a relatively flat meadow, you’d expect the temperature to be the same from one end to another. But put a hill or two in that meadow, and you’re going to see variations in temperature. There will be pockets of cooler temperatures — microclimates — potentially providing a refuge for both plants and pollinators during hot conditions.

Early data from Dr. Kazenel’s study suggest that a higher number of microclimates leads to more diversity in flowering plants, but not necessarily in pollinators. Other studies have documented relationships between plant and pollinator diversity, however, and Dr. Kazenel is curious to see whether collecting additional data at RMBL will reveal this pattern. This finding would imply that variations in microclimates could potentially buffer pollinator and plant diversity against the effects of climate change.

Dr. Kazenel’s team has also observed a strong correlation between a profusion of flowers and pollinator biodiversity. This could be because many bee pollinators are generalists. Almost any flower will do, if it has the pollen a bee needs.

Small areas with large impact

The unusual feature of Dr. Kazenel’s research is that it combines consideration of microclimates, plant diversity and phenology, and plant-pollinator interactions. These are rarely studied together. Yet microclimate variation could significantly shape floral diversity, which in turn could foster pollinator biodiversity.

What Dr. Kazenel finds through her research at RMBL will add to the vast and critical research needed to help all of us — plants, bees, and humans — manage climate change. We look forward to watching her work flourish.

 

Melanie Kazenel, PhD, is a Visiting Assistant Professor in Biology at Earlham College in Richmond, IN. She was a postdoctoral research fellow affiliated with North Carolina State University, Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory, and Florida State University. She earned her BA at Wellesley College and her MS and PhD at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque. Her research focuses on native bees and plant-pollinator interactions, examining population and community dynamics over time. She grew up in Canton, MA, and loves getting to know the ecology of diverse ecosystems across the US.