October 2023 Newsletter

the power of PLACE

“History repeats her tale unconsciously, and goes off into a mystic rhyme”

“History repeats her tale unconsciously, and goes off into a mystic rhyme”

James Burn, In the Christian Remembrancer, October of 1845

“The enormous usefulness of mathematics in the natural sciences is something bordering on the mysterious and .. there is no rational explanation for it”

Eugene Wigner, In The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences, 1960

A trout jumping in a riffle, releasing a whiff of trout and algal aroma and a wolf lurking in the forest, generating a sense of foreboding.

Ancient bacteria processing methane in a backyard in Berkeley and the meanders of the East River, below Gothic, CO.

A bee, navigating fields of flowers, domesticated and wild, moving in a straight line each time a flower comes up empty of nectar, but turning when discovering golden nectar.

While the details of the rich tapestry of life are unique in time and place, from fear cascading through ecosystems and causing fundamental changes in biomass productivity and community composition, to conserved metabolic processes carried in genes around the world, to bees optimizing how they collect and spend energy, biology harbors resonant themes, with complexity yielding to order.

Mark Twain is often posthumously quoted, but we have James Burn, an influential 19th century publisher of children’s tales, to thank for first describing the rhyming nature of human history. Just as great artists create works, rooted in the details of a human life, that speak to people everywhere, so too do great scientists pull back the curtains of complexity to reveal recurring patterns and theories. We may not fully understand the powers of nature that generate these recurring patterns, but whether expressed as a theory, or a mathematical equation, we can still be grateful. They give us the power to simplify an otherwise overwhelmingly complex world.


Ian Billick - Director RMBL

Ian Billick | PhD
Executive Director, RMBL


Dr. Becky Irwin

Buzzed on bees

Dr. Rebecca Irwin is a bee catcher. And tagger. And curator. And researcher. She’s also, as of 2009, a collaborator in Dr. David Inouye’s Phenology Project.

The 50-year study of the phenology of RMBL wildflowers Dr. Inouye founded has blossomed into a multifaceted look into flowers and their pollinators, particularly bees. While Drs. Brian Inouye and Nora Underwood now lead the team of wildflower phenology researchers, Dr. Irwin heads a group of scientists who study the phenology, diversity, and abundance of native bees around RMBL.

The Phenology Project’s overarching goal is to discover how climate change is affecting the phenology (timing of life events) of these plants and their pollinators. The project continues to grow in all directions. In addition to counting the flowers of more than 150 species in nine original plots plus over 12 added since 1974, the project is digging into root phenology and soil processes with research led by Dr. Aimee Classen.

Then there’s the equally long-lived dataset of billy barr’s observations of snow arrival, snowmelt, animal emergence from hibernation, temperature, and other climate measurements against which researchers can compare their data to see what trends are developing as the climate changes.

Dr. Irwin has been looking at how climate warming and variation are affecting bees since 2009. By now, she says that all the flowers and bees and insects seem like good old friends. One of the things she’s hoping to learn is how climate variation is shifting flower phenology relative to that of bees. She also wants to understand the effects of climate change on the bees’ abundance and success.