Middlebury

Middlebury students take the bumblebee and the maple tree to Congress

July 5, 2007

On April 25, Middlebury College seniors Kristen Pelz and Lee Corbett participated in the annual Council of Undergraduate Research's Poster on the Hill event in Washington D.C. Only 60 students from across the country are permitted to take part in the event and were able to meet their representatives and senators, present their research, and then display posters in the United States Capitol during an afternoon reception.

Pelz presented her research on the effects of habitat fragmentation on pollinator communities in New England - in this case, bumblebees. Bumblebees often require undisturbed nest sites on the ground, and construction, plowing, and even mowing can disrupt them. In order to survive, bumblebees need nest sites relatively close to floral resources that provide pollen and nectar. . Bumblebees are specialist pollinators in that they can only pollinate certain species of flowers. The scarcity or disappearance of those species and the use of land for agriculture and development could be catastrophic for the bumblebee species.

With her advisor, Associate Professor of Biology Helen Young, Pelz used a Geographic Information System (GIS) to examine the effects of different land use and ground cover on bumblebees. Pelz and Young concluded that the bumblebee population in a certain area is affected by a variety of factors, including the abundance of honeybees, which provide competition; floral composition in fields; and forest cover.

Pelz seems optimistic about the future for bumblebees. "Bumblebees are very effective pollinators of crops, and with proper conservation efforts I think.they could help native ecosystems stay intact," she said.

The Posters on the Hill event allowed Pelz to interact with politicians and to examine the role of science in politics. "The whole Posters on the Hill experience strengthened my belief that scientists' training should focus more on how to communicate in a political environment - our government needs their help!"

Pelz is currently working as a GIS intern for Trout Unlimited in Arlington, Va. She plans to find a conservation job with a state agency or a nonprofit organization after she completes her internship.

Corbett, a geology major, presented her research on how different bedrock affects the taste of maple syrup produced in the area. She is a native of Brattleboro, Vt., and said, "Sugaring has always been an important part of my spring." In the spring of 2005 and 2006, she participated in an experiment with her advisor, Assistant Professor of Geology Jeff Munroe, in which she collected samples from local sugar makers and tested them at Middlebury. The tests concluded that maple sap produced on different types of rock had different concentrations of elements, such as calcium and magnesium. Before participating in the Posters on the Hill event, Corbett and her research received coverage, along with Munroe, in an article in the Food and Dining section of the New York Times on Dec. 20, 2006. The article described Munroe and Corbett's projects along with similar research performed by other Vermont scientists.

The project originated several years ago when Munroe, Professor of English John Elder, and University of Vermont Assistant Professor of Food and Nutrition Sciences Amy Trubek began to explore the factors that could affect taste variations in maple syrup. Their goal is to explain why maple syrup flavors vary from place to place and eventually develop a gout de terroir ("taste of place") for maple syrup, which would publicly distinguish maple syrup as a place-based food, such as wine, cheese and coffee. Corbett's goal is to use her findings to benefit local sugarmakers: "I hope this project will help to emphasize the value of locally produced maple syrup and help small family farmers find a market niche."

Corbett graduated in May, and she is taking a year off before applying to graduate schools. This fall, she will work in the geology department at Middlebury before traveling to the Galapagos Islands next spring to work on sustainable energy development. "Without a doubt, participating in this project has been one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences of my Middlebury career," Corbett said.