How to Find Your Gap Year Buzz

My group arrived in Greenland on a four-week expedition. The object was science, but all of us were so excited it took us a week or so to settle down and focus on the business at hand: bees. There was science to be had.

The problem, at first, was actually finding some. We couldn’t just put out a pot of jam and hope for the best.

A lucky discovery

One day when I was out for a walk I almost literally stumbled across a bumblebee nest. Greenland has no trees above 15cm in height (which probably disqualifies them), so the nest was on the ground, nestled in a hollow in the tundra. We decided to make them our test subjects.

Our first project was to investigate whether bumblebees use physical markers to find their way back to their nest. We set up flags around the nest, and even stood nearby, to change the surrounding scenery. This seemed to confuse the bees: when they returned to the nest they bumbled straight past.

The second project involved timing how long each bee was away from the nest. This would also allow us to work out if it was always the same bees charged with the busywork of flying in and out. To do this we had to stake out the nest, and as soon as a bee made its appearance we released a small amount of ether. This made the bee momentarily sleepy, giving us an opportunity to place a tiny marker on its head using a natural adhesive. Each marker was a unique symbol that would allow us to tell them apart. The bee would wake up after a couple of minutes and buzz off about its business. We could then time how long that individual bee spent on its expedition before returning.

This was more difficult than anticipated, as the bees would often be away for lengthy periods of time. Also, as our first project had shown, having humans sitting beside the nest confused the bees upon their return, prompting them to fly on to somewhere else!

The bee's knees

The opportunity to study the nest at such close quarters was a real privilege. Before this experience I knew very little about bumblebees, but by the time our projects were over I felt intimately involved in their lives, particularly in how they communicated with each other by holding their bodies at certain angles against the sun.

I wanted to go to Greenland to be challenged, and I certainly wasn’t disappointed. It provided the kick start my gap year sorely needed. It gave me the chance to fulfil the potential for outdoors study I had always felt I possessed. The science was fascinating, but the opportunity to visit such an untouched land also combined it with the adventure and travelling I had been craving for a long time. There is nowhere else in the world like the Arctic, and I couldn’t be more grateful to have had such a unique experience there.