From Burning to Bees: My Journey in Wildfire

In the natural sciences, we often talk about telling a story. The challenge is to take sheet after sheet of data and create a compelling narrative. Stories are also a common theme among wildland firefighters; ask any firefighter if they have a good story and I guarantee the answer will be entertaining. As a forestry technician turned Master’s student, I aim to tell you two stories about two subjects that are both remarkably resilient while facing challenges to their very existence: bees and the wildland firefighter. Native bees evolve different strategies to survive and even thrive in the face of wildfire; the equally adaptable wildfire community has also figured out how to survive a mentally and physically challenging environment.

To explain why I’m using bees to help you understand my journey in fire, I’ll tell you more about myself. I spent three summers working as a forestry technician on an engine in Arizona. While there, I developed a passion for fire ecology and understanding the effects of wildfire on ecosystems. After this past summer, I made the tough decision to leave the career I love, and go back for my Master’s degree at the University of Denver. Here I joined the Murphy Lab where I am studying the effects of wildfire severity on native bee populations in the Front Range of Colorado.

My goal with this research is not just to understand how bees interact with a variety of burn severities, but to also use my research to educate the public about fire. This is especially important after the push-back against managed fire from the escaped Hermit’s Peak prescribed burn this summer.

I aim to show fire as simply a natural process, and not always a force of destruction. Fire, in fact, can be a tool of creation.

Many ecosystems have evolved with fire and their health depends on it. For instance, there is some evidence that pyrodiversity, or a range of burn severities, leads to increased biodiversity of pollinators1. Since pollinators are important to not only our food crops but also to healthy ecosystems, it is important to understand how a common disturbance like fire affects them.

One way bees survive fire is to nest underground. Of all known wild bee species globally, 75% nest underground2. Most firefighters’ experience with ground-dwelling insects is with yellow jacket wasps and the unpleasant stings from stepping on a nest. But there are many inconspicuous bee species dwelling beneath our boots. A survey of literature surrounding these ground-dwelling species concluded that nesting below 10 cm into the soil was far enough for their pupa to survive most wildfires3. Of all the aptly named mining bee species, 75% are capable of nesting at or below 10cm, making them a resilient species to fire3. The problem, however, is that the pupa emerge from their nests eventually and are therefore susceptible to a lack of flowers immediately after a high severity burn3. Timing determines success: emerge too soon into a barren moonscape or emerge late enough to take advantage of the post-fire bloom. Overall, ground-nesting bees capable of digging far enough into the soil seem relatively unbothered by forest fire and can survive even high intensity fires if there are enough resources available3.

I’m sure many firefighters can relate to the ground dwelling bee. Who hasn’t dug themselves deeper and deeper into their work to escape the heat of life’s fires? Wildfire, for me, was my escape. An untreated anxiety disorder left me unable to cope with the stress of applying to my dream graduate program. Instead, I packed all my belongings into my tiny Kia Soul and ran out west to Colorado to join a Conservation Corps fire crew. Making no money while practically homeless in my shoebox of a car was the unconventional break I needed from academic life. Running a chainsaw for ten hours a day on fuels reduction projects didn’t leave much time for the judgmental voices in my head. There was no time for imposter syndrome and feeling like I couldn’t stop the world from crumbling into a climate change hell-scape. The mind-numbing drone of the saw rang in my ears at night, but I didn’t care because I was exhausted and bundled into my sleeping bag.

But just like the mining bees, burying it all down only works until I had to emerge into reality at the end of the season.

While emerging into the reality of the post-burn environment can be challenging, some bees not only adapt, but thrive. Disturbance brings opportunity for certain species to increase post-fire. A study on bee populations in mixed-severity stands after the 2013 Douglas Complex found a surge in Bombus (the genera containing bumblebees) species in high severity sites during the late summer4. These sites had numerous flowers while the neighboring low severity stands had already finished blooming. Bombus took advantage of this new environment by being capable of foraging away from their nests4. Bombus also thrive several years post-fire across a variety of burn severities5. As generalist nesters and foragers, this taxa is adaptable to changes in vegetation and woody debris post-fire5. High severity sites 7-10 years post-fire even had more woody debris for Bombus nesting than unburned areas5. For generalists like Bombus, adaptability means thriving in changed environments.

For many rookie firefighters, fire is a new environment. Like Bombus, taking advantage of new opportunities is critical to success. Fire is tough, and many firefighters struggle just to get through their first season. When academic burnout sent my graduate school plans up in flames, I found opportunity but also challenges in the ashes. After the Conservation Corps, I took a federal fire job in Arizona where I would return for the next three seasons. Fire was fun, new, and most of all challenging. My first federal season, I was surviving in this new environment, but I wasn’t sure if I was thriving. I felt like a specialist species trying to survive in a generalist world.

Fighting fire is only part of the wildland resume, many firefighters double as mechanics, handymen, and foresters amongst a variety of other skills. I knew something about science, but everything from power tools to driving large vehicles on narrow forest roads was foreign to me. With practice (and very patient teachers) I slowly gained skills and confidence. By my second season, I felt much more adapted to the fire environment, but I still had dreams of graduate school.

To be able to thrive in wildland fire and academia, I needed to find my niche. Burying myself in my work wasn’t enough, and I didn’t feel completely adapted to a career in fire suppression. Throughout my seasons, I enjoyed opportunities to work with the fire effects crew and learning more about fire ecology in Northern Arizona. Fire ecology was my calling.

Working on the engine was amazing, but I still loved science and saw an opportunity to combine both my passions in a Master’s program. I’ve heard many firefighters complain about the quirky “-ologist” on the fireline that doesn’t understand them or wildfire. My goal is to bridge the gap and show the wildland community that science can work for them, not against them.

We share a common fight against misinformation and fear that stands in the way of fire-adapted communities and landscapes.

I am determined to adapt to my new environment of academia, but fire will always be my home. As mental health issues, small wages, and lack of agency support continue to make fire a difficult career, I hope that others who are struggling can also find their niche. There is a place for you, even if you must carve it out and fight for it. We, like the bees, are resilient creatures.

References: 1. Ponisio LC et al. 2016. Pyrodiversity begets plant-pollinator community diversity. Global Change Bio. 22: 1794-1808. 2. Antoine CM, Forrest JRK. 2021. Nesting habitat of ground-nesting bees: a review. Eco Ent. 46: 143-159. 3. Cane JH, Neff JL. 2011. Predicted fates of ground-nesting bees in soil heated by wildfire: Thermal tolerances of life stages and a survey of nesting depths. Bio Con. 144: 2631-2636. 4. Galbraith SM et al. 2019. Wild bee diversity increases with local fire severity in a fire-prone landscape. Ecosphere. 10(4): 1-19. 5. Gelles RV et al. 2022. Wildfire and forest thinning shift floral resources and nesting substrates to impact native bee diversity in ponderosa pine forests of the Colorado Front Range. Forest Eco & Man. 510: 1-9.