Meaningful Mentorship Event: Recap and Resources

Originally posted here on the Women in Life sciences at Davis (WiLD) blog. Find more mentoring resources at

During this event we talked about how to cultivate meaningful mentor-mentee relationships, from setting goals and expectations to maintaining long-term relationships. We discussed strategies for establishing, formalizing, and deepening impactful mentorships. The following is a summary of the main points from our discussion, along with a list of mentoring resources.

Anyone who has either mentored or been mentored (or both) knows that these relationships can be fruitful and beneficial to both mentor and mentee. But effective mentoring is really challenging. We couched our discussion about how to effectively mentor within some mentoring pedagogy to provide a structured framework that can help everyone approach mentoring more intentionally and confidently. Our goals for this discussion were to 1) brainstorm specific actions that we can all take to improve our mentoring relationships and 2) share tools and resources that could provide some inspiration or facilitate implementation of proactive, solutions-based mentoring.

Specifically, we focused our discussion on three key components of good mentoring: fostering effective communication, aligning expectations, and addressing equity, inclusion, and diversity in mentoring relationships. For each of these, we discussed tools for setting up a mentoring relationship in a way that makes the relationship more meaningful to both parties.


As with any aspect of an interpersonal relationship, communication works best when approached with care, thought, and intention. One way to determine the mentor’s and mentee’s communication styles is for each person to take an abbreviated Myers-Briggs personality self-assessment that can allow one to determine where they lie along the extroversion-introversion spectrum. This test is not as exhaustive as the full Myers-Briggs personality test but can at least provide a baseline for proactively identifying how and why communication problems may arise. Partners should also explicitly discuss preferred frequency and methods of communication (email, in person, etc.) early on.

Myers-Briggs abbrev

Adapted by Steve Lee, UC Davis Graduate Diversity Officer for the STEM disciplines

When challenges communicating do occur, one way to approach the issue is to fill out the following National Research and Mentoring Network worksheet to aid with identifying barriers to communication and addressing them.


Created by the National Research and Mentoring Network.


Aligning expectations

Part of clear communication between mentor and mentee is aligning expectations. This is ideally done at the start of the relationship and then updated periodically as the relationship proceeds and each individual’s needs change. A first step could be to take the following questionnaire. Answers will likely vary based on each individual mentor/mentee relationship – for example, a mentor may emphasize independence as more important in a graduate student than an undergraduate student.

NRMN aligning expectations

Another method is to use a mentoring contract. The mentor and mentee can fill out their individual expectations under categories like classes, funding, publications, travel, goals, and teaching. Then, they meet and go over the contract together, discussing and reconciling any differences between expectations. This meeting could include a clear and specific conversation about criteria for authorship, lab culture, funding availability, and other pertinent topics. At this meeting, the value of the mentoring contract becomes immediately clear: there are inevitably differences between expectations and needs outlined by each person, and therefore going through the intentional process of aligning expectations prevents those assumptions from being proven false later on. A mentoring contract is also a good way to allow the mentee to have a voice and be able to express their needs and expectations from the very beginning, a process that may not be easy for mentees to initiate. The mentoring contract should be revisited at least yearly to reflect new goals and expectations that arise and to assess progress – this is also a great opportunity to remind the mentee just how much they’ve accomplished in a year!

Some mentors craft mentoring philosophies, which they then either go over with students individually or even include on their websites or professional profiles. Others use mentor/mentee evaluations to maintain a healthy relationship. During all of these discussions, it can also be useful to talk about unrealistic expectations for each partner. For the mentor, it is especially useful to consider whether the mentee has realistic expectations about their mentoring needs. For example, a mentee can be categorized into four groups: needing a mentor a lot vs. a little and wanting a mentor a lot vs. a little – and out of the four possible combinations, mentors should carefully approach interacting with the mentees who need help but don’t want it (or don’t ask for it).

Addressing equity, inclusion, and diversity

Equity, inclusion, and diversity are the lens through which we focused on the issue of meaningful and effective mentoring. The logic behind this focus is that if you were mentoring yourself, you’d know exactly what you want. Conflicts between people in general, and by extension difficulties in mentoring, often arise from differences between mentor and mentee. Cultivating our own awareness, understanding, and empathy towards folks who are different from ourselves will naturally translate into more meaningful and effective mentoring relationships. We would argue that attending trainings about working specifically with women and underrepresented minorities makes one a better mentor in general, because the basic tenets from such training (respect, empathy, communication, awareness) can be applied to all relationships.

In order to engage in more effective partnerships, we recommend self-educating on pertinent diversity and equity issues and literature (the readings listed at the end of this post are a good place to start) as well as seeking opportunities for trainings and discussions and dialogue on UC Davis’s campus, including:

  • UndocuAlly training
  • The UCD LGBTQIA+ Center’s Allyship training
  • NRMN Culturally Aware mentorship
  • Graduate Diversity Orientation Program Extension workshops for graduate students

Such self-education and workshops can greatly increase understanding of others’ experiences besides our own, which fosters empathy and better communication in relationships in general. For example, a recent study has suggested that women benefit more from same-gender role models, but the same is not necessarily true for men. This could be important and useful information in certain situations: for example, if a male PI were advising a female graduate student and the lab, department, and graduate group she belonged to were composed in large part of men, the PI could improve the student’s experience by introducing her to other female faculty, scientists, or researchers in the field to help her foster relationships that best enable her to succeed. Alternatively, if for example a post doc attends a workshop on microaggressions and realizes that her lab-mates have participated in such behavior towards one of her undergraduate assistants, she could organize a meeting in which lab members discuss lab culture and how to create a welcoming and comfortable working environment for everyone in the lab.

Mentoring resources

Equity, Inclusion, and Diversity

These resources may be used to help mentors to:

  • Partner with organizations to increase recruitment and retention of women and members of Under-Represented Minority groups
  • Become better equipped to mentor students from a diverse range of backgrounds (resources and trainings through the WRRC, LGBTQIA+ center; UndocuAlly training through the AB540 center)
  • Provide these resources to mentees as needed 

General resources:

Resources at UC Davis:

Related readings (listed on Graduate Group in Ecology’s outreach web page):

Armstrong, M.J., A.R. Berkowitz, L.A. Dyer, and J. Taylor. 2007. Understanding why underrepresented students pursue ecology careers: a preliminary case study. Front. Ecol. Environ. 5: 415-420

Spalding, H.L., A. Gupta, D.J. Burshis, M.L. Knope, and K.A. Tice. 2010. K-12 science education and “broader impacts.” Front. Ecol. Environ. Front. Ecol. Environ. 8: 217-218

Torres, L.E. and B. Bingham. 2008. Fixing the leaky pipe: increasing recruitment of underrepresented groups in ecology. 6: 554-555


Science communication resources at UC Davis and beyond

Originally posted here on UC Davis’s Center for Population Biology blog.

Below is a list of science communication resources both on and off UC Davis’s campus. This is not an exhaustive list and if you have more to add please email For tips on how to communicate science effectively, check out this blog post by Easton and me.

UC Davis

Other opportunities

  • Massive Science:
    • Pitch pieces, receive edits, and get paid to publish on Massive’s website
  • Skype A Scientist program:
  • Ensia writing program:
    • “The Ensia Mentor Program offers scientists and aspiring environmental journalists an opportunity to build their communication skills and professional network by creating an article, video, image gallery, infographic or other work on a topic of their choice for Ensia under the guidance of an experienced communicator”
  • Ecological Society of America’s SciComm section:
  • Friends of Joe’s Big Idea (FOJBI):
    • “A community of young scientists that includes undergrads, graduate students, post docs and faculty interested in improving their science communication skills”
    • Run by Maddie Sofia and Joe Palca, NPR correspondents
    • Slack community that shares jobs, interesting science, and science communication tips and resources
    • “Office hours” are held monthly in which you can pitch a writing piece, get edits from the Slack community and from Maddie and Joe, and hopefully pitch the writing piece to a blog, magazine, or other publication
  • Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science:
    • Improvisation workshops
  • Young Scientists:
    • PhD students and postdocs compete to have a video about their research featured on the ibiology website. Winners attend a science communication workshop in preparation for recording their research talks.
    • Application:

Lessons learned from Alan Alda’s talk: Bringing science on a blind date

By Elena Suglia and Easton White

Originally posted here on UC Davis’s Center for Population Biology blog.

Scientists create knowledge that benefits all, but the scientific process shouldn’t end with discovery. Science is a public good and its benefits should be shared with the rest of society. With increasing anti-science sentiments in the US, it is crucial for the public to be engaged in the scientific process and understand the services science provides. Prior to the early 2000s, researchers attributed public hostility to science to a lack of understanding due to a lack of information. This information deficient model posited that scientists could increase scientific literacy and decrease skepticism towards science by conveying facts and data more effectively to the public. Though some scientists continue to prescribe to this model, it has been proven ineffective, and in fact, recent research has shown that an inundation of information can cause people to become more firmly entrenched in their beliefs, regardless of scientific accuracy. Today, it is generally thought that the best way to improve public engagement with science is by communicating with, rather than to, the public by focusing more on a dialogue between citizens and scientists. How can scientists engage in effective dialogue with the public?

The key to being a better communicator may just be dialing empathy up a notch, according to M*A*S*H actor-turned-science-communication-guru Alan Alda, who spoke about just that at the Chancellor’s Colloquium at UC Davis on January 31st. Putting work and intentional effort into being a better human can naturally translate into being a better communicator, because when it comes down to it, communication may be what makes us human in the first place! Alda explained the hypothesis that socialization arising from communication is what made modern humans more successful as a species than Neanderthals. Technology was one difference between modern humans and Neanderthals, but communication is a prerequisite for technological advances. Picture one of our ancestors carving a tool and showing off her invention to her friend in the next cave. That friend might make modifications, then pass along that knowledge to someone else and thus spread new technologies quickly. But what if every person had to reinvent the wheel on his own? “Imagine inventing something and not collaborating with anyone else on it,” said Alda. “What was said in cave 12 stayed in cave 12.”

Communication is all about forming and maintaining a connection with another person. Alda related this process to going on a blind date: you start with a lack of trust and a feeling of unease, then move on to attraction, which turns into infatuation and eventually develops into a stable commitment. Alda spoke about tips to facilitate each stage of this process in scicomm. Here we share a brief synopsis of his main ideas.

Alda was a well-practiced expert when it came to wooing a crowd (if you couldn’t guess from his 7 Emmy awards). By way of introduction, he strode unhurriedly to center stage, turned his back to the audience to see the screen projecting an image of the back of his head, and joked, “Oh no – I’m bald!” After smiling genially around the room for a few moments while the audience laughed, he followed up with an attention-grabber: “I want to tell you a story about a moment that changed my life.”

He walked across the stage with a faraway look in his eyes, setting the scene in a way that belied his professional acting experience. “I was in Chile, and I was curled up on a bench in the fetal position in the worst pain I’d ever felt in my life.” A stranger came to his aid, and Alda said, “I ended up in this truck going along a bumpy trail for hours to get to a hospital, because we were in the middle of nowhere.” When the doctor came in to tell him what was wrong, that was the point at which Alda had his life-changing moment: “He said, part of your intestine has gone bad. We need to take out the bad part, take the two good ends, and stitch them together.” And Alda responded, “Oh, you mean you need to do an end-to-end anastomosis.” (Laughter ensues). “The doctor looked at me and said ‘Yes! How do you know what that is?’ and I said, ‘That was the first operation I had to perform in M*A*S*H!’”

Jokes aside, this was a key interaction to Alda because it perfectly demonstrated the right way to communicate a complicated concept to someone: “He looked me in the eye, he explained the operation in simple language and he watched to see if I understood.” Alda emphasized how, despite fears that complexities cannot be explained without sacrificing accuracy, the doctor’s description was “not any less accurate when explained in simple terms.” Further, the doctor’s simple but effective language and engagement with Alda, allowed him to connect with his patient, establish trust, and help Alda feel more comfortable with the operation.

Articulating your message clearly is not enough, however. The meat of communicating to a person happens during the commitment stage, where you’ve gotten past the awkward first meeting and have decided this endeavor is worthy of sticking with. “It’s not communication until it gets into the other person’s head, and they care about it, and they want to know more,” said Alda. Throughout the talk, a common thread is to practice storytelling, which implies much more than getting across your message. Injecting personal details or emotion into a story makes it much more likely to be received well, as evidenced by the rapt attention Alda held over the audience. Each time he made a point, it was accompanied by a story with a personal connection.

Science storytelling is actually easier than it sounds! Scientists are interesting people, and the scientific process is itself a compelling story. Centering science communication on the scientist and their journey towards scientific discovery is an effective method, especially because the scientist likely faced challenges along the way. Alda demonstrated that overcoming an obstacle to reach a goal makes for a more interesting story: he had a woman from the audience pour water into a glass until it was about ¾ full and walk across the stage with the instruction to “not spill a drop.” Then, he went up to her and filled the glass until it was nearly overflowing. “Now walk back across the stage.” The audience leaned forward in their seats as she stepped forward carefully, collectively holding their breath, gasping when the glass wobbled, and groaning in dismay when it inevitably sloshed over the edge. Afterwards, Alda asked, “Which trip across the stage was more engaging?”

Storytelling also implies effective and engaging delivery. Scientists in particular often struggle with this aspect of communication – and little wonder: it is rarely emphasized in their professional training. That’s why Alda decided to teach scientists improvisational acting as a way to help them become better communicators. In partnership with Stony Brook University, he started the Center for Communicating Science in 2009 and has since been providing scicomm training to scientists of all career stages.

Improvisation is not only about acting: it’s also about paying attention to your audience. Alda demonstrated this with an exercise in which Alda and Chancellor May stood face to face on stage, and when Alda moved, Chancellor May mirrored his movements. Alda could have moved quickly and unpredictably, but instead, he waved his arms slowly, ensuring his partner could mimic his movements easily. Alda used this exercise to show the audience that it’s more the speaker’s job to pay attention to their audience’s signals than it is for the audience to absorb information from the speaker. When you’re communicating with someone, Alda said to ask yourself, “What is the person wearing? What is their name? What color are their eyes?” Being tuned in to your audience not only establishes a connection with them and builds their trust in you as a speaker, but also lays the groundwork for allowing you to respond to their cues and improvise your message as you deliver it.

As scientists and science communicators, we were inspired by Alda’s talk because he practices what he’s preaching as he’s preaching it. He engaged his audience so well that by the end of his talk, he felt more like an old friend than a lecturer, and that connection made his performance that much more memorable. Alda reminded us that communication abilities are not innate; they are skills to be learned and practiced. His success only came after decades of experience and training.

We encourage scientists to seek opportunities to hone their communication skills. First choose a medium that speaks to you, whether it be written, video, audio, or in-person. Then, choose your outlet: we’ve written a separate blog post here that lists some opportunities at UC Davis and online. Let us work to ensure that science remains a vibrant, valued part of our society by better engaging the public in scientific discovery and the pursuit of knowledge.

Being a Good Ally: Lessons Learned at a UC Davis GDOPx Workshop

Yesterday, I attended UCD’s Graduate Diversity Orientation Program (Extension)’s (GDOPx) workshop on being a good ally led by Dr. Jinni Pradhan. I thought it would be nice to take the time here go over a few takeaways on basic allyship as well as some new perspectives about allyship I hadn’t considered before.

What is allyship? The Anti-Oppression Network has a great article that defines allyship as “an active, consistent, and arduous practice of unlearning and re-evaluating, in which a person of privilege seeks to operate in solidarity with a marginalized group of people.”  In its most basic form, allyship involves developing and practicing empathy towards all people. This includes everything from using inclusive language (using preferred or neutral pronouns, or “folks” instead of “guys”) and avoiding making assumptions about other people or groups of people, to shutting down racist great-aunts at Thanksgiving dinners, to self-educating on topics rather than asking marginalized groups to educate you, to actively attending rallies protesting oppressive policy.

One of the first steps towards becoming a good ally (or an ally, period) is recognizing your privilege. What is privilege? Everyday Feminisim has a good article covering the basics, and defines privilege as a set of unearned benefits given to people who fit into a specific social group.

The workshop emphasized that everyone has a different set of privileges because everyone has had a different lived experience.

Allyship also involves working towards intersectional liberation of people belonging to oppressed groups. Here’s a wonderful comic created by Miriam Dobson (twitter) illustrating intersectionality better than I could explain it:

Comic licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License by Miriam Dobson.

Allyship is work, and involves making mistakes, recognizing and apologizing for those mistakes, and moving on. At the workshop, we discussed calling in rather than out when others make mistakes: for example, if a person says something that could be construed as ableist during a dinner party, taking that person aside and explaining one-on-one to them in a respectful manner why their comment may be harmful or exclusionary is better than calling them out in front of the other party guests – bringing them into the conversation and learning process rather than making them feel left out.

We also watched this great video from Franchesca Ramsey (host of MTV’s Decoded; twitter, facebook, website) outlining tips for being an ally:

The most important takeaway from this video is that ally is a VERB, which implies action: the work towards being a better ally is never over. One can always improve.

Some other things that allyship can involve:

  • being uncomfortable, and being ok with that discomfort
  •  active listening
  • the Golden rule AND the Platinum rule: Treat others the way THEY want to be treated
  • being aware of current events that affect marginalized communities
  • recognizing that intention is not the same as impact: even if someone means well, their words or actions may have a negative impact, and that means something despite all good intentions

There were two points that I came away with from the workshop that I’ve never really thought about before, and want to emphasize here:

  1. Allyship is a give and take; a partnership. Allies who are not members of a specific marginalized community often receive more praise and are more valued than allies from that marginalized community. What folks should recognize is that being exposed to diverse viewpoints, experiences, and cultures is a privilege: diversity makes our communities richer and betters our understanding of the world. Allies on both sides of the partnership benefit from participating in and leveraging the alliance.
  2. I’ve heard a lot of people react defensively when their flaws as an ally are pointed out. I think this comes from the assumption that allyship is synonymous with basic human decency. In reality, it’s more nuanced than this: instead, we should assume that all people start from a place of poor allyship with groups of people they don’t share qualities with, and the farther removed from a group you’ve been all your life, the worse ally you’re naturally going to be. If a person has never had lived experiences as a member of a marginalized group, how could they ever be an effective ally for members of that group? People are not just born knowing what it’s like to be someone else: that’s why the phrase “walking in someone else’s shoes” exists – we were all wearing our own pairs of shoes before we tried another’s on.

I think it’s best to think of one’s self as an “ally in training” for all perpetuity because we can always improve, and self-improvement is a task that is never completed. I am just at the beginning of this learning process, much of which has involved consuming as much self-education materials as I can get my hands on, and stepping aside to really listen to people carefully and thoughtfully without taking up space myself. I think this has been an easier way to approach allyship because I’m not taking many risks in which I may make mistakes. This blog post in itself represents a next step for me: I am speaking out, a little – but hopefully also magnifying others’ voices and reaching people who may not have been exposed to these ideas before. I hope I’m not speaking over anyone else.

I encourage anyone who is reading this to do the research on all these topics themselves. There is so much more to this than I can ever write in a blog post, and this is really the farthest thing from my area of expertise. I wrote this to expose some folks in my social circles to these ideas, many of which they may not come across otherwise. Please feel free to engage with me one-on-one if you are interested in learning more about these topics, or if you have any concerns about any of the ideas I’ve put forth here. I’m happy to amend my statements if they are problematic or oversimplified.

The feature image is actually just a snapshot of the interactive word cloud found here.

See upcoming Equity and Inclusion events at UC Davis here.
For more on Diversity Resources on UC Davis’ campus, click here.

New study: Individual actions against climate change DO matter!

A new study investigated the impacts of individual actions against climate change, and found that what we do in our everyday lives can actually make a difference! The accompanying graphic has made the rounds, and the media and public alike have focused on the fact that having one fewer child will have the greatest impact (is this really a surprising find??), but there’s a lot more to take away from the study that has largely been ignored in the public eye, and Grist has a nice news brief that sums it up well, writing: “the researchers found that behavioral shifts could be faster than waiting for national climate policies and widespread energy transformations. As far as I know, this is the very first comprehensive analysis on the effectiveness of specific individual climate actions.”  Read the original article and check out the graphic here.


Featured image of the Earth By NASA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Pollinator Week Activities at USDA Headquarters! -Washington, D.C.

Below is an announcement from a listserv I subscribe to about activities going on in D.C. tomorrow in honor of National Pollinator Week! If you’re in the area, check it out!

It’s National Pollinator Week! Bee with us tomorrow (Rain or Shine!) for a fun-filled day to celebrate the hardest working friends of farmers and consumers at the eighth annual Pollinator Week Festival on Friday, June 23 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. outside USDA Headquarters in Washington, D.C.!

Special highlights include:

  • See live bats from around the world, including local insect-eating bats, leaf-nosed bats from South America and giant flying fox bats from Africa and Asia. Learn how bats are very important to ecosystems by eating pesky insects and spreading seeds or pollinating flowers of plants like mango, banana and pineapple.
  • Meet beekeepers from USDA-ARS Bee Research Laboratory and watch honey bees at work in an observation hive. Learn about pollinated foods like raspberries and taste honey from local hives including the People’s Garden Apiary, US National Arboretum, DC Water, and Bee Research Lab at VegU in the USDA Farmers Market.
  • Explore the People’s Garden to collect and identify insectsTake home pollinator-friendly plants like milkweed, oregano or bee balm to plant for pollinators.
  • Enjoy Free Häagen-Dazs Ice Cream! Honey bees pollinate many of the ingredients used to make ice creams and sorbets. To spread their love for honey bees Nestlé Dreyer’s Ice Cream is donating free cups of Strawberry Ice Cream and Pineapple Coconut Ice Cream – both bee-dependent flavors – to festival and bat walk attendees. Supplies are limited.
  • Shop the USDA Farmers Market during the day (9 a.m. – 2 p.m.) and in the evening (4 p.m. – 8 p.m.). Signs will highlight which food we’d be without if not for the hard work of honey bees, birds, butterflies, bats and other pollinators.
  • Walk with Bats! Meet at 8 p.m. at the corner of 12th Street and Jefferson Drive, SW in Washington, D.C. to attend a special “bat walk”! The walk discusses local DC bats, how they navigate the night skies, avoid predators and catch insects. Also, test out electronic bat detectors that pick up the ultrasonic calls that bats emit to navigate the darkness.

Exhibitors include:

USDA Agencies and Initiatives

Agricultural Marketing Service

Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service

Beltsville Agricultural Research Center Bee Research Laboratory

Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion

Farm Service Agency

Natural Resources Conservation Service

The People’s Garden

U.S. Forest Service


Other Federal and State Departments

DC Water

Department of Energy and the Environment

Smithsonian Natural Museum of Natural History

United States Environmental Protection Agency

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service



Million Pollinator Garden Challenge

National Honey Board

National Wildlife Federation

Organization for Bat Conservation

Pollinator Partnership

University of Maryland Extension


The Pollinator Festival is free, fun and educational for both youth and adults. For more information follow @PeoplesGarden on Twitter. Sign language interpreters will be present all day in the yellow information tent in the USDA Farmers Market.

Featured image of Hylaeus bee taken by:
By Orangeaurochs from Sandy, Bedfordshire, United Kingdom – Solitary bee (Hylaeus?), Sandy, Bedfordshire, CC BY 2.0,

Fun facts about native bees for National Pollinator Month!

Pollinators (read: native bees) hold a place near and dear to my heart. I’ve also had the great fortune of being able to study them in the wild, learning about their wondrous ways and marveling at their impressive diversity. I’m excited that June is National Pollinator Month because it gives me an excuse to write about everything bees! Let’s kick it off with a listicle to whet your appetite for more bee reads to come. But before I start, here’s the introductory paragraph to the US Forest Service’s handy guide to native bees that nicely sums up the theme for this month’s blog posts:

“Native bees are a hidden treasure. From alpine meadows in the national forests of the Rocky Mountains to the Sonoran Desert in the Coronado National Forest in Arizona and from the boreal forests of the Tongass National Forest in Alaska to the Ocala National Forest in Florida, bees can be found anywhere in North America, where flowers bloom. From forests to farms, from cities to wildlands, there are 4,000 native bee species in the United States, from the tiny Perdita minima to large carpenter bees. Most people do not realize that there were no honey bees in America before European settlers brought hives from Europe. These resourceful animals promptly managed to escape from domestication. As they had done for millennia in Europe and Asia, honey bees formed swarms and set up nests in hollow trees. Native pollinators, especially bees other than honey bees, have been pollinating the continent’s flowering plants since long before the arrival of honey bees. Even in today’s vastly altered landscapes, they continue to do the yeomen’s share of pollination, especially when it comes to native plants. The honey bee, remarkable as it is, does not know how to pollinate tomato or eggplant flowers. It does very poorly compared to native bees when pollinating many native plants, such as pumpkins, cherries, blueberries, and cranberries. Let us take a closer look at this forgotten treasure of native bees.”

Fun facts about native bees:

  1. There are 4000 species of native bees in America! Just to re-emphasize what the US Forest Service says above, because this is SO important, honey bees are non-native to the US, and before there were honey bees, crops, trees, and wildflowers were all pollinated by native bees. Native bees evolved to pollinate their local native plants, so it makes sense that they would be the best, most natural candidates for pollinating those same native plants now. Honey bees are definitely more effective at pollinating certain crops, but our collective dependence on honey bees for pollination has gotten us into trouble – honey bees aren’t doing so well, as you might have heard. Part of this is because domestication isn’t all that healthy for them, especially when used in large-scale farming operations. Honey bees also tend to outcompete native bees and therefore harm native communities, so sometimes they can do more bad than good. I’m simplifying all of this because this is a listicle, but the research is accurately reported in many sources – check them out with a google search on “native bees and honey bees” if you’re interested, just make sure the sources you read are citing scientific articles published in peer-reviewed journals.

  2. Some bees mimic wasps, and some flies mimic wasps and bees.

    Both of these are flies! Left: a bee mimic, right: a wasp mimic. This is a super cool adaptation meant to deter predators. It also makes it difficult to differentiate between wasps, flies, and bees when they’re flying around outside. As a field tech, I eventually became adept at this skill and can pretty easily ID the insect family on the fly, but this was my full-time job and it took a lot of practice. If you’re interested in learning the specific characteristics that differ between these insects, here’s a good place to start:

  3. Native bees are often very small and go by unnoticed, but you can observe them almost anywhere if you are patient.
    They can often be as small as an ant, so keep your eyes peeled or use a magnifying hand lens. If you sit in front of a clump of flowers in the summer between 10 am and 2 pm when it is sunny, there is no wind, and the temperature is above 70 degrees, you’ll probably see some native bees within 15 minutes. If you don’t, you’re likely choosing the wrong clump of flowers. Unless you strategically plant your garden, your best bet is to go searching in a natural prairie or forested area. Remember that these are native bees, and so may be less likely to visit the types of exotic flowers often sold by nurseries and landscapers.There are many different types of native bees, but here are some of the more common groups:

    Agapostemon are my favorite kind of native bee, with some species sporting characteristic yellow and black stripes on the abdomen, and some completely metallic green or blue.

    cf Augochlora pura F
    are beautiful metallic green/blue bees that can look similar to Agapostemon.

    Colletes are more “classic” looking bees, with yellow and black stripes and plenty of fuzz.


    are quite small, with a mostly black body often featuring yellow markings around the face, legs, and upper thorax. For scale, the tiny black speck on the flower petal in the left-hand image is a Hylaeus bee!

    Andrena are another group of mostly black and hairy bees:


    By now, some of the species are starting to look pretty similar. If you’re interested in actually learning specimen ID, there’s a wonderful, specific guide that takes you through identifying characteristics one by one This is really fun, but requires a microscope; bees that have been caught, preserved, and properly curated; and plenty of pre-identified museum specimens with which to compare your specimen. But with a little training, motivation, and the internet at your disposal, anyone can do it! One caveat: I am sure most people could easily learn to identify bees to genus, but when it comes to species IDs, for some speciose, cryptic, or rare genuses like Lasioglossum and Hylaeus, you really need an expert taxonomist to verify the ID. I always encourage citizen science, so if you’re interested in this kind of thing, contact me and I can get you in touch with the right people!

    A few more genuses include Nomada, Anthidium, Megachile, Bombus, and Osmia.

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    A quick caveat: not all bee species that you can observe in the wild from these groups are native, but the vast majority are. There are about 20 non-native bee species in America, including species of MegachileHylaeus, Chelostoma, Hoplitis, Anthidium, and Andrena. Learn a bit about these species here:

  4. Bees are descended from wasps, but while wasps are carnivores and sometimes even cannibals, bees are herbivores.Bees actually eat both nectar and pollen! Adults mostly eat nectar, but pollen is also stored as food for larvae. Perhaps intuitively, nectar supplies bees with high energy needs, and pollen provides more protein.

  5. Some bees are generalists, while others specialize on certain flower species.Bumblebees often pollinate all different flowers, while some groups of bees specialize on certain flower groups or species. Squash bees pollinate cucurbit plants like zucchini, pumpkin, or squash. Macropis bees only forage on loosestrife, and Anthemurgus passiflorae is a highly specialized bee that only visits flowers of the species yellow passionflower, Passiflora lutea. Some of this is based on the bee shape and size “matching” with flower shape and size- only long-tongued bees and tiny bees can access nectar at the bottoms of long, narrow flowers, while almost all bees can reap the nectar and pollen rewards of sunflowers and other asters.

  6. Different bee species display varying amounts of sociality.

    Everyone knows the honey bee is super social and lives in colonies with rigid caste systems, cooperation, and even dances to communicate with each other. However, many of the native bees listed above live in varying states of solitude. Some live together at certain life stages, some create nests and leave the offspring to fend for themselves, and some, like bumblebees, still live in colonies but don’t reach the level of sociality that honey bees do.

  7. Miners, leaf-cutters, masons, carpenters: different bees have different nesting habitats.

    Mining bees dig holes in the ground and live in them. Species from Andrena and Colletes are miner bees. Osmia are carpenter bees that carve out nests in dead wood, and Megachile are mason bees that nest in holes and leaf cutters that use pieces of leaves to line their nests.

  8. Some bees are nectar “robbers.”Remember what I said about longue-tongued bees tending to drink nectar from long-tubed flowers, and short-tongued bees foraging on smaller flowers? Well, it would be nice for science if nature complied with these seemingly obvious rules, but as is usually the case, nature is more complex than that! Some bees have learned to “cheat” the system by poking holes in the bottoms of nectar tubes and drinking nectar by using their tongue as a straw. From an evolutionary perspective, this behavior “cheats” the system: the bee gets all the benefit without helping the plant out by pollinating it. Usually, pollination is classified as a “mutualism,” where two partners get mutual benefit from interacting, but in this case, the plant misses out.

If you found this interesting, look out for future posts in which I’ll be writing about topics such as attracting native bees to your yard, native bees’ role in agricultural crop pollination, the science on the effects of pesticides on bees, and native bee conservation. The US Forest Service’s native bee guide also provides more detail on many of the topics discussed here. The Xerces Society also plays a prominent role in pollinator protection – for an excellent resource on all things pollinators, visit their website here.

Happy Pollinator Month! 🙂

Related articles

To learn more about my research on bees, see this article in a New Jersey Watershed Association newsletter:

If you think insects are really cool and you want to learn more about how they live their lives, check out this fun piece about insect communication that you can find here:

More bee & insect articles by yours truly!



Photograph credit

Bee mimic: By USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab from Beltsville, USA – Asilidae, U, Side, Carroll Co., MD_2013-07-23-15.07.52 ZS PMax. Uploaded by Jacopo Werther, Public Domain,

Wasp mimic: By Bruce Marlin [CC BY-SA 2.5 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Agapostemon bee: By Judy Gallagher [CC BY 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Augochlora bee: By maxson.erin – cf Augochlora pura F, CC BY 2.0,

Colletes bee: By S. Rae from Scotland, UK – Colletes, CC BY 2.0,

Hylaeus bee images, in clockwise order from left to right:

By Orangeaurochs from Sandy, Bedfordshire, United Kingdom – Solitary bee (Hylaeus?), Sandy, Bedfordshire, CC BY 2.0,
By Orangeaurochs from Sandy, Bedfordshire, United Kingdom – Solitary bee (Hylaeus?), Sandy, Bedfordshire, CC BY 2.0,
By Katja Schulz from Washington, D. C., USA – Yellow-faced Bee, CC BY 2.0,

Andrena bees: By ©entomart, Attribution,

Osmia bee: By Judy Gallagher –, CC BY 2.0,

Bombus bee: By H.Kohori – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Megachile bee: By maxson.erin – Megachile rotundata F, CC BY 2.0,

Anthidium bee: By Juan Emilio from Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, España – Anthidium palliventre??, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Nomada bee: By Judy Gallagher –, CC BY 2.0,

Pollinators in Urban Landscapes: Event in DC

Anyone in Washington DC? If so, head over to the National Museum of Natural History to learn about pollinators in urban landscapes!

Fun fact: there are LOTS of native bee species in urban areas!! Preliminary results of a study that hasn’t been published yet compared rare bee diversity in agricultural, urban, and forested settings – and interestingly, urban settings won out a good portion of the time! Why? We’ll have to wait and find out when her publications come out. But an initial hypothesis of mine is that urban landscapes offer lots of structural complexity where bees can create nests, and that people plant lots of diverse flowers in their window boxes, gardens, and landscaped areas.


Description of the event from the website:

“The Buzz About Urban Pollinators

Join moderator Timothy Beatley, professor at the University of Virginia and founder of the Biophilic Cities Network, Gary Krupnick, conservation biologist at the National Museum of Natural History, Catherine Werner, sustainability director for the City of St. Louis, and other experts for a discussion about projects that are benefiting both people and pollinators in urban environments.

Learn about successful projects such as St. Louis’s “Milkweed for Monarchs” initiative, as well as Smithsonian research, including the National Museum of Natural History’s Pollinator Garden. Participants will discuss government and grassroots recommendations for sustaining healthy pollinator populations.”


Feature image is the same one on the event web page and was taken by Katja Shulz, Smithsonian.

Scientists refute Scott Pruitt’s erroneous climate warming “leveling off” claims in Nature paper

In a somewhat unprecedented move, Benjamin Santer and colleagues have published a paper reiterating the scientific consensus regarding tropospheric warming over the past two decades in order to refute recent claims by EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt that warming has “leveled off.” Read the article here: