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A bee or not a bee?

October 13, 2020

Before I headed out into the golden afternoon, I checked I had everything I would need: Hiking boots, notebook, pencil, phone, wallet, face mask, keys, field guide, collection vials. After a moment’s consideration, I grabbed a jacket too. Even though it was warm, I knew that the chill of fall would make itself apparent as evening neared. 

I walked north, cutting between the Union Street apartments and up to the crew-cut grass of North Fields. Any other fall, this would be my final destination. The fields would be laced with uneven spray paint sidelines and filled with students playing soccer, rugby, or my sport, ultimate frisbee. Without the ring of high fives and sideline cheers, the air felt eerily silent.

Lost in my nostalgia, I let myself in through the metal gate that separates North Fields from the Oberlin Solar Array. It wasn’t until a sea of grasshoppers raced to escape my clumsy footfalls that I realized with a start that the air wasn’t silent at all. It was loud. The drone of bees, hum of crickets, and chirps of frogs rose out of the brush in a great cacophony. I had decided it was silent without ever stopping to listen.

Yellow flowers bloom over a vast green field.
The Oberlin Solar Array

The Solar Array is beautiful at any time of year, but especially so in the fall. Members of the sunflower family that have spent all summer growing tall finally bloom, transforming the landscape. Goldenrod and black-eyed Susans surround a swath of solar panels.

Like a teenager told to be home by 11, the land around the panels is minimally managed. This makes it an excellent place for biology classes to study how ecosystems function. On this particular trip, I had come to observe pollinators.

I headed to the first of the plots my lab partner and I established. It’s a one-meter square of solitary Solidago, full to the brim with yellow flowers. I set my timer for thirty minutes and took out a pen. Then, I watched. Ready to record any insect that approached the blooms.

A small square of flowers is parked with pink tape.
One of our study plots

The pollinator project I’m working on is for a class called Invertebrate Ecology. I was surprised to learn that the vast majority of animals on earth are invertebrates. Yet, as I have become more acquainted with the flying, crawling, and wriggling among us, it’s begun to make perfect sense. Invertebrates are a part of every ecosystem. They pollinate flowers, return nutrients to the soil, and provide an important food source for those creatures which are not quite as spineless as they are.

After a moment, I saw a bee stop to inspect a cluster of yellow flowers. I raised my pencil, ready to note its presence when I paused. It didn’t look like the other bees I’d seen frequenting this patch of flowers. Sure, it had yellow and black stripes, but it was a little smaller and more… angular?

I watched, intrigued. The longer I stared, the more confident I became. This was something else. Flipping through my field guide, I found it, not a bee, but a hoverfly. Anxious to avoid being eaten, the hoverfly adopts the bee’s coloring to trick predators into thinking it may sting. I watched for a while as it zipped from flower to flower before flying off into the blue.

a close up photo of a butterfly on yellow flowers
Closeup of a butterfly

Over the next 30 minutes, I saw all sorts of creatures: a large iridescent blue beetle, a mint green insect with long black legs, and a small, checkered butterfly. For each one, I placed a tally mark in my small yellow notebook. I was right to have brought a jacket. With the sun setting, it began to get cold. I bundled up as I put away my things and started the long walk back to my house.

I left the Solar Array thinking about the things I don’t notice. Before I took this class, bugs all looked the same. They flew too fast, had too many legs, and were generally to be avoided. Only after learning their names have I begun to see the breadth of their diversity. There’s a lot there if you just stop, watch, and listen.

As time’s gone on, I’ve begun to feel this way about campus also. When I first came back after the summer, it seemed too quiet without meals at Stevie, sports competitions, and concerts every weekend. I still miss those things. At the same time, there’s a lot here if you learn to look for it. Socially distant performances on Tappan, virtual Writing Center appointments, and walks through the Arboretum with friends have begun to fill my days.

At the same time, I’ve come to appreciate exploring the campus as a way to spend time with myself. As a senior, this is my last year at Oberlin. Before I leave, I want to notice the small things that make this place great. The insects at the Solar Array, the intricate designs on the ceiling of Asia House, the giant tires in the Field House that you can roll around in, and the unexplainable doors to nowhere in Wilder, I want to find them all. I’m sure there is more to discover, if, like the hoverfly, I can stop to smell the flowers.

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