Innovation and Entrepreneurship: The Bee & Wasp Squad

Three students and a faculty member stand on top of a hill overlooking a valley covered with trees and grass
Pictured left to right: intern Stephanie Paris, professor Amy Toth, graduate mentor Erika Ibarra-Garibay and intern Denisse Camarena pause for a photo at a field site near Dubuque, Iowa, where they were looking for bees.

By Whitney Baxter

Students can join Iowa State University’s Bee & Wasp Squad with little background on pollinator insects, but chances are that after a summer of field and lab work, they’ll not only know more about bees and wasps, but more about themselves as well even.

Amy Toth, Professor of Ecology, Evolution and Organism Biology, launched the Bee & Wasp Squad in the summer of 2021 to introduce undergraduate students to hands-on fieldwork and research related to these pollinators. Financial support for the program came from an Iowa State Rossmann-Manatt award, which Toth received.

Given the huge popularity of the program based on the number of applicants, Toth wanted to offer the program again in the summer of 2022. She applied for and received funding to support another cohort of cadre through the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Faculty Fellows Program. This program, started in the final academic year, is sponsored by the Dean’s Office for Academic Innovation and Start Something College of Agriculture and Life Sciences of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Toth is among the nine faculties selected for the first scholarship program.

With many students vying for the three open positions on the squad, Toth interviewed each applicant to see if they would be a good fit.

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“I wanted to make sure students could develop their interests over the course of the summer internship,” Toth said. “We talked about their career goals and their interests to determine if this program would be a good fit for them.”

The three students selected for the Summer 2022 Bee & Wasp Squad were Ayrin Alexander, Junior in Animal Ecology, Denisse Camarena, Senior in Animal Ecology, and Stephanie Paris, Senior in Environmental Sciences.

Each student was paired with a graduate student or postdoctoral mentor. The undergraduate students supported the advanced students in research projects, learning how to study pollinators and conducting experiments.

Camarena worked with Erika Ibarra-Garibay, a graduate student in ecology, evolution and organism biology, to help find the rusty bumblebee, an endangered species of bee, and gather information about other bees they meet on their travels across the state met.

Ibarra-Garibay and Kate Borchardt, also a mentor of the Bee & Wasp Squad, a fourth-year graduate student in Ecology, Evolution and Biology of the Organism, decided to become mentors because of the positive experiences they had as undergraduate scientists.

“I saw the value I got from undergraduate research and wanted to pass that on,” said Ibara-Garibay.

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During the summer, Camarena was surprised to discover a newfound interest in smaller species, namely insects.

“I had no idea that I was interested in the entomological side of animal behavior,” Camarena said. “I was planning on doing research on larger animals, but being part of the Bee & Wasp Squad made me realize there’s so much more out there and I don’t need to focus so narrowly.”

The undergraduate students were also asked to take on their own research projects. They planned the questions they wanted to explore as part of their project and how they would conduct the research to find the answers.

“It inspires a lot of confidence,” Toth said of the students’ research project planning process.

Paris spent the summer researching forager bee wing wear, among other bee-related work. To do this, she investigated how long-distance flights or age can wear down the wings of bees.

Alexander conducted a similar research project, only she studied wing air loss and how this correlated with hair loss on a bee’s thorax (middle section). The biggest challenge with this research, she said, is that bees only live for a few weeks, so it’s difficult to document changes over time.

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“My whole impression of insects has changed. I learned a lot about plants and herbs, as well as the basics of proposal writing,” said Alexander.

Students leave the summer internship not only with an expanded knowledge of pollinators, but also with a better sense of where their education and career path should go. Morgan Moore, a PhD student in Ecology, Evolution, and Organism Biology, was part of the 2021 squad. She is now a first-year PhD student, working under Toth’s tutelage.

“My internship has definitely influenced my future goals,” Moore said. “It showed me what I was passionate about and introduced me to people who could make my passion a reality.”

Toth hopes the Bee & Wasp Squad will continue to be offered in the future.

“The program aims to support exceptionally promising students, particularly those from historically underrepresented and marginalized groups, by providing an informed research experience and building strong relationships among group members,” said Toth. “Those relationships are key – students excel best when they are supported by a laboratory community that respects their individual goals and talents while fostering a strong sense of belonging.”

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