Rachael Shaw and Michael Dillon look for bees at Ucross. Shaw, a choreographer, and Dillon, a scientist, were paired together for the film "The Ucross Experiment: Cross-pollination of Arts and Sciences." The two earned funding to continue their work with bees. (courtesy Ali Grossman/UWTV)

In the late 1920s, a Hungarian man named Rudolf Laban published a dance notation system that would become known as Labanotation. The Laban system offered a way to track and analyze movement, and is still used by dancers and choreographers today.

It also is being used in a new study looking at the impacts of pesticide on bumblebees. Born out of an experiment for a documentary at the Ucross Foundation, Michael Dillon, an assistant professor at the University of Wyoming, and Rachael Shaw, a choreographer and a certified Laban movement specialist, decided to collaborate on research tracking bee movement after pesticide exposure.

Rachael Shaw (courtesy by Ali Grossman)
Rachael Shaw (courtesy by Ali Grossman)

“There is a potential for very high impact,” Dillon said. “Everybody is finally catching on that we really don’t want to lose pollinators.”

Dillion and Shaw first worked together last year as part of the documentary project The Ucross Experiment: Cross-pollination of Arts and Sciences, pairing artists and scientists. They weren’t allowed to do the “standard science-art” project where the artist has to interpret the science, or “make it pretty,” Dillon said. They had to actually collaborate.

At first even basic communication was hard between the two. “It’s like speaking two entirely different languages, even though they’re both in English,” Dillon said.

Though Labanotation is most commonly used for choreography, it is a specific way to record all movements, and not just dance. After an intense 10 days of using Shaw’s expertise in Laban, and Dillon’s skill in biomechanics and functional morphology, they were able to start identifying themes in how bees move. They filmed bees on different types of flowers and looked at how they landed, moved and fed.

“It’s both about a different way of looking at the world and speaking a different language,” Dillon said.

Michael Dillon (courtesy Ali Grossman)
Michael Dillon (courtesy Ali Grossman)

The two recognized their collaboration could potentially translate into additional studies, so they devised a plan to look at how a common pesticides impact bumblebees. When pesticides land on plants they enter the entire ecosystem, Dillon said. When an insect feeds on a plant with a pesticide, it is poisoned. If the crop flowers, or if it’s near other flowers, those are also exposed to the pesticide. Pollinators absorb a non-lethal amount of poison from the nectar and pollen. What that means to the bumblebees’ ability to carry out its pollination duties is of great interest.

Most of the research examining how these low-levels of pesticides impact pollinators has been done on honey bees, so Dillon and Shaw decided to look at bumblebees where there isn’t much data.

While high levels of pesticides kill insects, many survive lower level exposures, yet the impacts are difficult to detect. Some studies show colonies don’t grow as quickly or produce as many queens. People realize there is a strong connection between food production and pollinators. Data from the study can help policymakers in deciding how to help and protect bees.

“I’m not here to make policy. I’m just here to understand if there are effects (with pesticides),” Dillon said. But he knows those who make policy could be interested in whatever the findings are as they set rules on types of pesticides and amounts that can be used.

To measure pesticide impact, Dillon and Shaw fed low levels of pesticide-infused nectar to bees bred in captivity, then analyzed video of their movements. It was clear something was off, but it was hard to describe precisely what changed. Using the Laban method Dillon and Shaw were able to precisely analyze the changes. Dillon also uses conventional methods, tracking bee deaths under different dosages, and documenting rates of movement — how fast and often bees fly and feed.

The results are compared to a control group treated exactly the same except for the pesticide.

Dillon didn’t want to divulge the specifics of the experiment set-up and the initial findings since they are still analyzing data and haven’t yet published results. But the study is significant, he said. Research on pollinators is a hot topic. The Obama administration started a pollinator task force last year, and in May announced new measures such as planting bee-friendly gardens at federal buildings across the country, to help protect the insects.

Shaw and Dillon are working on analysis and hope to submit a paper for publication by the end of the year. Shaw also is working on a creative project inspired by the study she hopes to debut next year at the Ucross Foundation. “This is a true collaboration,” she said. “We are working with each other’s expertise. I couldn’t do this without Michael and he couldn’t do this without me.”

Kelsey Dayton is a freelancer and the editor of Outdoors Unlimited, the magazine of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. She has worked as a reporter for the Gillette News-Record, Jackson Hole News&Guide...

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