Innovation and Entrepreneurship: The Bee & Wasp Squad

Three students and faculty member standing at the top of a hill overlooking a tree and grass covered valley
Pictured left to right, intern Stephanie Paris, Professor Amy Toth, graduate student mentor Erika Ibarra-Garibay, and intern Denisse Camarena pause for a photo at a field site near Dubuque, Iowa, where they were searching for bees.

By Whitney Baxter

Students may join the Iowa State University Bee & Wasp Squad with little background knowledge about the pollinator insects, but chances are, after spending a summer conducting field and lab work, they’ll walk away not only knowing more about bees and wasps, but more about themselves, as well.

Amy Toth, professor of ecology, evolution and organismal biology, initiated the Bee & Wasp Squad during the summer of 2021 to introduce undergraduate students to hands-on field work and research related to these pollinators. Financial support for the program came from an Iowa State Rossmann Manatt award Toth received.

Seeing how popular the program was, based on the number of student applicants, Toth wanted to offer the program again during summer 2022. She applied for and received funding to support another cohort of the squad through the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Faculty Fellows Program. This program, which started last academic year, is sponsored by the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Dean’s Office of Academic Innovation and Start Something College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Toth is among nine faculty who were selected for the inaugural fellows program.

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

“I wanted to be sure students were able to develop their interests through the course of the summer internship experience,” Toth said. “We talked about their career goals and their interests to help 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 science.

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

Camarena worked alongside Erika Ibarra-Garibay, graduate student in ecology, evolution and organismal biology, to assist with searching for the rusty patched bumble bee, an endangered bee species, and collecting information about other bees they came across as they traveled the state.

Ibarra-Garibay and fellow Bee & Wasp Squad mentor Kate Borchardt, fourth-year doctoral candidate in ecology, evolution and organismal biology, chose to become mentors because of the positive experiences they had as undergraduate researchers.

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

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

“I had no idea I had an interest in the entomology side of animal behavior,” Camarena said. “I was looking at doing research on larger animals, but being part of the Bee & Wasp Squad has made me realize there’s so much more out there, and I don’t have to have such a narrow focus.”

The undergraduate students were also required to take on their own research projects. They planned the questions they wanted to study through their project and how they would carry out the research to find the answers.

“It builds a lot of confidence to be able to do that,” Toth said of the planning process of students’ research projects.

Paris spent the summer researching wing wear of foraging bees, among other bee-related work. To do that, she looked at how long-distance flights or age can wear down bees’ wings.

Alexander conducted a similar research project, only hers looked at the wing aerial loss and how that correlates with hair loss on a bee’s thorax (midsection). The biggest challenge with this research, she said, is bees only live a few weeks so it’s hard to document change over time.

“My whole impression of insects has changed. I’ve learned a lot about plants and forbs, as well as the basics of how to write proposals,” Alexander said.

Students walk away from the summer internship not only with increased knowledge about pollinators, but with a better sense of where they want their education and career path to go. Morgan Moore, graduate student in ecology, evolution and organismal biology, was part of the 2021 squad. She’s now a first-year graduate student working under Toth’s guidance.

“My internship definitely affected my future goals,” Moore said. “It showed me what I had a passion for 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, especially those from historically underrepresented and excluded groups, by providing an in-depth research experience and building strong relationships among group members,” Toth said. “These relationships are key – students excel best when they are supported by a lab community that respects their individual goals and talents, while promoting a strong sense of belonging.”