In her nature conservation research, Jacqueline Staab found a way to combine her two passions: bees and dogs.
Staab’s dog Darwin was trained as a conservation dog to track down bumblebees and their nests, and Staab said he is the only conservation dog in the country that specializes in bees. The joint research by Staab and Darwin is for their Masters in Evolutionary Ecology.
For the past four or five years, Staab has been coming to Summit County alone to research bees, and this year she has Darwin with her for the first time. The duo specialize in Alpine bumblebees, making Summit County an attractive research destination.
â€œI couldn’t think of a better place to do research with Darwin,â€ said Staab. â€œAlpine bumblebees are also like a canary in a coal mine for climate change. … By seeing how they react out here, it can help us predict future movements and shifts. “
While their research season is just beginning, Staab and Darwin have already conducted surveys around the Hoosier Pass and parts of the White River National Forest.
â€œWe don’t see very many bumblebees, so we definitely have our work ahead of us,â€ said Staab. “This is honestly the lowest number of bumblebees I’ve seen out here.”
Bumblebees are opportunistic nests, which means they nest anywhere they can. Staab says they like to use abandoned animal burrows, sheds, piles of wood, or large tufts of grass.
Staab said that until recently, most bumblebee conservation research focused only on their flower resource needs. She said there were two other key aspects of the research: her need for a wintering site and a nesting site.
â€œIn order to preserve the species, we have to know all the pieces of the puzzle,â€ said Staab. â€œBumblebees are really important; they are key pollinators. … If we start to lose pollinator diversity, we will also lose plant diversity, and that will only set off a cascade of ecological problems. “
Working with Darwin, Staab said her research adds new information about bumblebees’ nesting habits and preferences that can help conservation organizations figure out how best to allocate resources to help them.
â€œThe more we learn about the overall picture of their nesting preferences and nesting ecology – we really don’t know anything – the better we can see the overall picture in order to find a solution,â€ said Staab.
Staab said there are a number of characteristics that sniffer dogs need. Darwin, a German short-haired pointing dog, came from a line of working dogs, and pointing dogs naturally keep their heads close to the ground and have high propulsion.
Staab got Darwin as a puppy and sent him to Highland Canine Training in North Carolina when he was 6 months old. Highland Canine’s trainers had previously worked with other conservation dogs, but not specifically for bees.
Amber Siebsen, who led Darwin’s training, said he was a natural. Darwin was the first conservation dog trained by Siebsen; She usually trains other sniffer dogs for law enforcement and search and rescue.
Siebsen said that Darwin’s training process is very similar to training other dogs; the main difference was the environment in which she trained him. Darwin has also been trained to keep a few feet away for his own safety and security when tracking bees, while narcotic dogs are trained to get as close as possible to the source of the odor.
The first step in training is imprinting, which essentially teaches the dog what smell to sniff for. To do this, the scent is poured into a pipe with drilled holes. In Darwin’s case, there was the smell of bees’ nests.
Siebsen said once the pipe is filled with the odor, the trainers play with the dog for about 75 minutes to expose it to the odor. Siebsen said the 75-minute period came from a study by the training center‘s president of how long it takes for a dog to learn a new odor.
The next step in the training process is behavior design, which involves teaching the dog what to do if it detects a smell. Siebsen said this was easier for Darwin because, as the name suggests, pointers naturally point.
When a dog does what it wants – such as pointing to the source of the odor – Siebsen reinforces the behavior with a ball. Then she adds several boxes of different scents to teach the dog how to hunt and uses the ball when Darwin points to a box of the right scent.
Siebsen said dogs like Darwin are much better able to find things in nature than humans. Staab added that a third of a dog’s brain is controlled by its olfactory system.
“We’re taking a natural ability … and we’re going to teach them to use it to our advantage, to give them a game that will meet their needs and achieve what we need,” Siebsen said. “With Darwin, you can clear a large piece of forest or field very quickly, much faster than you could just walk around looking for.”
Other types of guard dogs look for bats, whales, jaguars, weeds, and various types of invasive species. Staab said she found Darwin’s specialization in bumblebees beneficial because their odor is so faint.
Siebsen added that when training sniffer dogs, she always gives them the opportunity to make a mistake. When she trained Darwin, she had the scents of different species of bees in the facility and he never went wrong.
â€œBumblebees have something they can smell that is clearly different from other bees,â€ says Siebsen. “If you change the bumblebee species or the bumblebee species on him, he will point it out anyway.”
Staab said she’s always looking for help with her bumblebee research and encouraged anyone who saw a bumblebee nest to contact her at [email protected] or on Darwin’s Facebook page.