111 – August Jackson – The Bees of the Willamette Valley (in English)

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Andony Melathopoulos: [00:00:00] From the Oregon State University Extension Service this is PolliNation, a podcast that tells the stories of researchers, land managers, and concerned citizens making bold strides to improve the health of pollinators. I'm your host, Dr. Andony Melathopoulos, Assistant Professor in Pollinator Health in the Department of Horticulture.

Last week we had a really great episode with Bonnie Shoffner talking about how to do effective education and outreach with people who don't know anything about bees. And I thought this was a great opportunity to catch up with another real great educator here in Oregon: august Jackson. Now August works as an Interpretation Coordinator at the Mt. Pisgah Arboretum, where he's helping to develop the arboretum's interpretive exhibits and adult educational programs. Now he's been studying and photographing bees for only about five years, but he has a real great eye for it. He's a real talent. He can really identify bees. He has a great ability to frame bees up in pictures, and he's taken this towards education.

He's educated, a lot of people on bee biodiversity in the state through some of the programs that he runs at both at the Arboretum, but also at the Siskiyou Field Institute. And this week he was at the Bee School here at Oregon State University. In this episode, I want to talk to him about how to integrate all those things together, and he's done so beautifully in this brand new book he's offering for free online: The Bees of the Willamette Valley: A Comprehensive Guide to Genera. So we're going to talk a little bit about how the book is structured, how people who are just beginning, start to learn about bees and some of the diversity of bees, and then we're going to go into this really fascinating discussion about how to photograph bees. It's a really great episode. I'm so excited to finally be able to bring August onto the show. I hope you enjoy this episode.

Okay. I am very excited to be sitting across from August. Welcome to PolliNation. 

August Jackson: [00:02:13] Thank you Andony; it's awesome to be here. 

Andony Melathopoulos: [00:02:15] We have an occasion; you're an instructor here at Bee School and you've also done a lot of education at Siskiyou Field Institute and elsewhere, as well as in your current position. And I can never say the name of the arboretum. 

August Jackson: [00:02:29] Mount Pisgah Arboretum.

Andony Melathopoulos: [00:02:30] And it's outside of Eugene. So you've done a lot of bee education and you've come out with a new book. And I saw... I've been wanting to talk to you about just in terms of your understanding of the bees of this region, but there's so much to talk about. But I did want to focus today on talking about the book that you developed. Where did the idea for this guide come from? So it's the guide to... 

August Jackson: [00:02:55] It's a guide to the bees of the Willamette Valley, with a focus on genera. 

Andony Melathopoulos: [00:03:00] Okay. So people who are not from Oregon, this is sort of the part from Portland down to Eugene is this Valley. Okay. Right. So where did this idea even come from? 

August Jackson: [00:03:09] So honestly it just came to me kind of last fall, when, usually my busy season's kind of over at work. And there's no field season anymore; all the bees are gone.  I was just kinda thinking about some projects I wanted to do and it just sort of developed. And I was like, that's a crazy idea. And then I started laying out a plan for it and I figured, okay, I can actually do this. I can actually probably put this together in three or four months. 

Andony Melathopoulos: [00:03:36] That's insane. I just want to mark this with like, it's really well put together. It took you three to four months? That's crazy. It's all laid out. It looks... wow. Okay. 

August Jackson: [00:03:49] While working 40 plus hours a week still. 

Andony Melathopoulos: [00:03:51] That's crazy. Okay. Keep going. 

August Jackson: [00:03:53] Yeah. And part of the inspiration for it was actually being up at the first session of Bee School last July. And, working with the key, the Canpolin key that I think came out of the Packer Lab. I haven't been able to track down exactly who did it but, you know, seeing people work through this key during Bee School and seeing what they struggled with... and so, part of what I did was really inspired by that key, taking the basics of that key, and filtering it down for our area and then simplifying it more in terms of some of the terminology used seeing, what characters that were, you know, confounding people that I could just get rid of.

And then, seeing if I could improve on the photographs. And in some instances, I'm not sure I did. That can be a little challenging with some of the tiny characteristics, but, that was kind of the goal. And then I was like, okay, if I'm going to make a key, then I might as well have a section on each genus that gives people a little more info and, maybe some info on species in that genus they can find in the Valley. So that's kinda how it came together. 

Andony Melathopoulos: [00:04:57] Wow. Okay. So let's back up just one sec, because I think what the guide really shows is the sensitivity to learners. So tell me a little bit about your experience. You know, there's so many people really interested in pollinators and want to get to know more than just bumblebee and honeybee. And so, well, what's the beginner's experience when they're confronting, you know, these hundreds of species of bees? 

August Jackson: [00:05:19] I think it's daunting. And well, I mean, I can say for myself that it's daunting. I taught myself; I've never taken an entomology course. I taught myself, I guess, starting six or seven years ago. I've always been interested in botany, and I just started to pay attention to what I saw on flowers. And so, pollinating flies and bees both captured my interest. I started looking around to figure, you know, what kind of material I could find on them and found that I was hitting immediate roadblocks. And there's more information out now; there probably was back then too. I just didn't know how and where to look for it. 

So I guess part of what I had in mind was: what would have been really helpful for me at that point where I was like, okay, this is cool... I want to know more. So that was really... I had myself in mind. And I had, you know, a lot of people that are in classes that I teach or help out in, in mind, as well.

Andony Melathopoulos: [00:06:17] Where do people get stuck? So when they, you know ... you mentioned looking at a previous key, for example, the canpolin key, and just thinking about like:  "I can see a learner's perspective to this in a way for..." you said one of the things, was that make sure, you know, when you deal with the bees of North America, in North and Central America, you've got this, you got all these couplets that don't make any sense. So you got to strip those out to begin with so you've got a species list you're thinking about. 

August Jackson: [00:06:45] Right. Yeah. I mean, there are a lot of ones that throw people off and a lot of it is just when a key asks you to look at... a set of characters that your mind has never considered. So, you know, wing veins and how curved they are. And you're supposed to say something is strongly curved versus not strongly curved and you've never seen either before. So how does that work? And that's something you can't really get around, but I think you can, you can start to break through that a bit if you start to change the way you're phrasing things, and present photos that illustrate that, that you can compare that with.

But that's still hard in the classes I taught, using this key for the first time. Back in June, people had difficulty with that. And you know both days. But by the end of it, people were starting, they had seen enough bees... had gone through it enough times that they had that reference. That "Oh, okay, that means strongly curved... that's less strongly curved." Repetition's important and good images, reference images, are really important. 

Andony Melathopoulos: [00:07:52] You know, I was thinking about how you described your own passage and it started with the kind of, not... probably microscopes are not the first place you turned, you were thinking about, you had an interest in seeing the connection between pollinators and plants, and the book starts off with a kind of it and understands that learning step. And you have, describe how you've sort of built the book with that as a starting point. 

August Jackson: [00:08:16] Yeah. There's an introduction that kind of goes into that a bit where, you know, the audience for this book was ideally anyone with an interest, including people who are, you know, gardeners who want to know what's in their garden. And of course that's a very broad audience from the people who want to really dig into bees versus those who are just kind of curious and would like to know more about what they're seeing in their garden.

And I tried to do both and I don't know how well both audiences were served, but there's a key at the beginning that just sort of, helps people sort things into artificial groups and that's just five couplets. And, it's really just based on some characteristics that you could see in a handful of cell phone photos of a bee that's visiting parsley flowers in your backyard, for example.

And then that narrows it down to a few options that you can look at in the back, and try differentiate between. And maybe, you know, every several times you can actually come to a point where you feel like you're probably IDing that bee correctly to genus. 

Andony Melathopoulos: [00:09:26] So it kind of gets you a kind of a very coarse read on bee biodiversity.

Walk us through what those five couplets are, if you can, without it in front of you. 

August Jackson: [00:09:38] Yeah. So, it's actually just looking at the level of hairiness, how metallic something is, if it has pale markings on its integument, rather than just,  pale hair bands or, or something like that.

I think sizes in there too, to some degree, and hat can narrow things down pretty quickly with the bees that you see in your backyard. You know, your ceratinas and dialictis are quite a bit smaller than... 

Andony Melathopoulos: [00:10:06] They're never gonna be big. 

August Jackson: [00:10:07] ...than, you know, everything else you're encountering. So I think those are the main kind of groupings, and then it sends you off from there.

Andony Melathopoulos: [00:10:16] Now those are great. Those are all really, you know, especially if you're in a constrained area, you're not gonna have to consider bees from anywhere else that that can get you pretty close to. You know, some good guesses.

August Jackson: [00:10:27] Right. It can help you with some guesses. 

Andony Melathopoulos: [00:10:29] Yeah. Okay. That's great. Let's take a quick break, and I'm going to come back and ask you a little bit more about some of the cool bees in Oregon that you come across.

Okay, we're back. So, we'll make our way to bees, but one thing I did forget to mention: I remember in the, well, the first thing is I follow you on Instagram, and you have some of the most stunning bee pictures I've ever seen. And you also have like a Flickr page? 

August Jackson: [00:11:05] No, no, no. 

Andony Melathopoulos: [00:11:07] It's all on Instagram.

August Jackson: [00:11:08] Yeah. Right now it is. Yeah. 

Andony Melathopoulos: [00:11:09] Yeah. It's on Instagram. And so, the book also covers... I think lots of people are interested in bee photography. Just kind of walk us through some of the basics of how do you take a good bee picture? 

August Jackson: [00:11:21] Yeah. 

Andony Melathopoulos: [00:11:22] They're so fast. 

August Jackson: [00:11:23] They're fast. They can be very fast. Yeah. So you wait for a rainy day and that's all, that's the only time you take photos of bees.

No, I mean, it's super fun and challenging and I really enjoy it. There are a lot of macro photographers that focus on insects that take pictures, primarily of things that sit pretty still. I enjoy the challenge of chasing after bees and that was how I, that was how I began learning bees.

I learned bees through my camera lens because I didn't have a microscope. This is after college, so I didn't have access to a microscope really. I could have if I had really asked around, but I learned bees through my camera and that was really useful. So I was just teaching myself in the field.

So you can use all kinds of different cameras. I think it's particularly handy to have a macro lens and that's really what took me to the next level. But you can, get a pretty good camera, a pretty good macro lens, for a reasonable price these days. And now that everything's digital, you can just snap hundreds of bad photos on your way to getting some good ones, and that's really what it is when you're taking pictures of bees. 

I'll go out, you know, on a week camping trip and all snap 2000 photos and I'll come back and have 10 to 15 that I like. And we'll actually, okay. That's not entirely fair because a lot more than that, but I'll only choose 10 or 15 of them. So maybe, maybe a hundred that I like. 

Andony Melathopoulos: [00:12:52] So one thing that people run into is depth of field. You know, really, really being able to, getting like, the abdomen and focus, but not the head can be... how do you, is that just chance or is there a strategy to sort of like,  lining them up?

August Jackson: [00:13:09] Yeah. I use flash, so that helps a lot. So I can really narrow down my aperture so that, you know, I'm shooting at... and this is maybe too technical, but F you know, 9 to 13. So it's a really narrow aperture, greater depth of field, and the flash is key for that. So that's kinda my number one friend that... I ran out of flash batteries one time and just decided, okay, I'm going to for fun. Try to shoot without a flash. And, I'll never do that again. 

So that's really a, really a key for me. And then yeah, positioning myself, to try to get the kind of a photo that I want. And I like to get as much data in the picture as I can, as well as have it be a nice looking picture because I'm really, you know, interested in it being usable as a potential teaching tool to help identify things. That's important to me. 

Andony Melathopoulos: [00:14:06] Okay. And I guess, there there's more details, like I immediately want to ask, like the flashes... and the batteries running out... I was just like, man, you go up on these long hikes in the middle of nowhere and carrying all this flash equipment. And anyways, this is all in the book.

August Jackson: [00:14:26] Yeah. There's info in the book. Yeah. 

Andony Melathopoulos: [00:14:27] Okay. What about my question about batteries running out and all that? Like how does that work? 

August Jackson: [00:14:32] I make sure I use better batteries now, actually rechargeables at work, and last for a very long time and I bring spares. Yeah. So, it's fairly simple.

Andony Melathopoulos: [00:14:42] Okay. So, I also just want to, I really liked the idea of, the kind of connection with the first part of the interview. Just thinking about being an educator and taking pictures that sort of help people along that route of... that's really fantastic. 

So, tell us a little bit about some of the areas in Oregon ; you've been around the state a lot and I follow you on Instagram and you've got these great expeditions. Tell us a little bit about some of your favorite areas in Oregon for collecting and taking pictures. 

August Jackson: [00:15:13] Yeah. So the Willamette Valley actually has a pretty great bee diversity.

So, one of my favorite spots is honestly just, in the spring I go outside my office, Mount Pisgah Arboretum, and take a walk during lunch and I bring my camera with me. And sometimes a net. And that's one of my favorite spots. There's a very high diversity of bees there, that kind of corresponds with the peak floral diversity in mid to late April early May.

So that's an awesome spot. Southern Oregon is pretty great. 

Andony Melathopoulos: [00:15:44] And just backing up. So in that time of the year, this is mostly shrubs. This is Oregon Grape, and...

August Jackson: [00:15:51] Oregon Grape would be a little earlier than that. This would be when you get the camas blooms and buttercups. And I mean it's well, when practically everything in the valley blooms, cause still have some Oregon Grape blooming. And the willows too, often are hanging on still. 

Andony Melathopoulos: [00:16:09] Is there a, is there a plant in the spring that you sort of reliably, "I'm going to find something cool on it?"

August Jackson: [00:16:17] Camas is interesting. It attracts a lot of different andrena mining bees. Oregon grape is kind of a cornucopia plant, so it will bring in a lot of really interesting flies, mining bees, eucera. A plant that I really love as our first bloomer and that's also a berry are Indian plum. And that's a really fascinating plant to me because it blooms generally on average in mid February, when our temperatures are often too cold for bees.

So it's pollinated lot by some pretty fascinating flies. And then you do get a rush of bees on the warm days, mining bees and eucera. And it's just this really interesting group of early spring pollinating fauna, that's out for, you know, four weeks, and is pretty unique. So that's a plant I like. 

Andony Melathopoulos: [00:17:07] Fantastic. Okay. So we're now we're headed to Southern Oregon. 

August Jackson: [00:17:11] Yeah. Southern Oregon is great, in the Siskiyous. The plant diversity there is very high with a lot of endemics, so you get some interesting bees. I don't get to spend enough time down there, honestly. It's a really awesome place.

Andony Melathopoulos: [00:17:23] But you teach a bee course down there every year at the Siskiyou 

Field Institute.

August Jackson: [00:17:31] Yeah, the Siskiyou Field Institute, so I don't get a lot of time. 

Andony Melathopoulos: [00:17:35] If you take the course, you'll see some cool bees. 

August Jackson: [00:17:38] But there's cool stuff down there for sure. 

Andony Melathopoulos: [00:17:41] And what's kind of blooming and what time of year do you like going down there? Like May?

August Jackson: [00:17:45] May through June is pretty good. April too. There's a long bloom season there and, pretty spectacular diversity, and again, a large number of endemic plant species. Which, should house also some really interesting bees that probably are only in that section of this state. But that remains to be seen.

Andony Melathopoulos: [00:18:10] Any other spots on the other side of the Cascades? 

August Jackson: [00:18:13] Yeah. I mean, all of Eastern Oregon is great. But I love Steens mountain, and the Alvord desert area; the diversity there is phenomenal. 

Andony Melathopoulos: [00:18:23] It's just... drop the mic.

August Jackson: [00:18:27] And the abundance is crazy too. Like, I sat down my cup of coffee and I have a female osmia swimming in it as I try to take another sip.

I woke up in my tent one morning and I had a female hoplitis fulgida next to me on my pillow.  I tried to get her out of the tent before my partner noticed. 

Andony Melathopoulos: [00:18:49] You could, you know the big rock candy mountain song? You can sort of adapt this to the Steens and just instead of anyways... it's all like "whiskey flows out of the..."

August Jackson: [00:18:58] It is pretty spectacular there. So that's a place I love. 

Andony Melathopoulos: [00:19:03] And, bloom there is a little bit later. It' s starting about now I imagine. 

August Jackson: [00:19:08] Right about now, especially this year they had a really impressive snowpack. So the bloom this year should be phenomenal because I think they were 150% of average, so it should be kind of a super bloom year up there.

Andony Melathopoulos: [00:19:22] Are there are any other. .. I'll give you one last... I didn't tell you it was gonna be four, but you're now down to your last one. 

August Jackson: [00:19:31] Oh, man. I don't know. A place I haven't been in a while that I think probably houses some, some really interesting diversity is Wallowa mountains.

It's a very unique location, floristically. So it has a lot of Rocky Mountain flora there. Which suggests to me the possibility of also some Rocky Mountain type fauna. I think that there is a good chance for some interesting bumblebees there. 

Andony Melathopoulos: [00:19:59] Fantastic. Well, those are all really great suggestions.

And, for those of you who are not in the state, you should come visit us. We've got some great spots to see some really great bees and great plants. Okay, let's take a quick break. We're going to come back. We have this, a segment where we ask people questions. I'm very interested to know what your answers are, so let's come back after break.

Okay. We're back. All right. So here's the three questions. The first one is: is there, especially as an author... oh, and we should say, the book, we will have a link to it on the show notes, but you made it freely available, which is great. Because lots of people here in Western Oregon are using it.

If you're not in the state, it's just as great. It may not apply directly to your bees, but it's a really good intro. So we'll have that link on here on the show notes. But coming back to books; you must've thought, you must have had some books kind of running around in your head as you're writing, or there must have been a books that have been, do you have a recommendation?

August Jackson: [00:21:11] you know, I think The Bees in Your Backyard, which came out several years ago is a really nice introduction for folks to kind of begin to understand bee biodiversity in North America. And you know, you can't always use it for identification, but in terms of really getting a feel for the bees, I think it does a phenomenal job in making that information accessible. 

Beautiful photos throughout. I think it's a really wonderfully done book. And then, The Bees of the World by Michener is... I mean, that guy wrote that book in his seventies, I think. And I mean, it's just a phenomenal tome. It's an incredible book. 

Andony Melathopoulos: [00:21:57] Well, I was thinking about... it's interesting because these, both these books kind of like span in some sense, you know, not that you're doing The Bees of the World, but, there's two things there.

Like I really think Bees in Your Backyard did a really great job of, kind of deskilling; they made it accessible. Because lots of people are interested, like yourself. It's not like you came through a graduate program, right? Like there's a lot of opportunity for people to be able to do very high quality work, but they do need resources. And I thought that book was really good at just kind of like, "no, you can break down this wall and do this." 

August Jackson: [00:22:32] Right. Exactly. 

Andony Melathopoulos: [00:22:33] Which I think, at the same time, the other end of the extreme is kind of daunting. Every bee you know, every kind of... the state of knowledge of bee taxonomy.

But, you know, that there is a kind of straddle, both parts of it. Just being able to make it accessible, then drag people down the rabbit hole with you. 

August Jackson: [00:22:53] Yeah. Right. Exactly. 

Andony Melathopoulos: [00:22:56] Fantastic. Well, what about a tool? Is there a go to tool? You must have a lot of different tools, but is there something that you find indispensable?

August Jackson: [00:23:03] Just my camera? I love my camera. Although lately, I've been spending a lot of time just in front of microscope. So both of those are really valuable to me. 

Andony Melathopoulos: [00:23:12] Tell us about your camera. What's your camera?

August Jackson: [00:23:14] It's a Canon 80D. 

Andony Melathopoulos: [00:23:16] Is that eight, eight 80 D or a D D?

August Jackson: [00:23:21] 80 is in the number and then a D. That's kind of one of their mid-range cameras. I had a very low-end camera for a while that some of the pictures in the book were taken on, that did a fantastic job too. So you really don't need a high-end camera to, to do a great macro photography work. 

Andony Melathopoulos: [00:23:40] And you must have a whole idea of like one go-to macro lens or do you have a bunch of them?

August Jackson: [00:23:45] For the field work? Just one that stays on my camera and that's pretty much all I use. And then for studio work, I have another lens that I use for really high magnification work. 

Andony Melathopoulos: [00:23:58] Okay. And, tell us about your flashes. 

August Jackson: [00:24:02] It's just a Canon speed light flash. 

Andony Melathopoulos: [00:24:04] So it's just one flash mounted on the top?

August Jackson: [00:24:07] It's just one. You know, a lot of people get really into their lighting, and have multiple flashes and figure out diffusion, and I just am not that kind of person. I found something that works for me and it's worked for me for five years and I'll do my damnedest to never change it. 

Andony Melathopoulos: [00:24:25] Well, you know, the last question is... I was wondering if you would permit me to change it up?

So the last question was do you have a favorite pollinator species, but I thought it'd be a great opportunity to ask you, is there a bee picture that you took that you really cherish? Like of all the bee pictures you've taken, is there like one or two that sort of like: "ah, that was great."?

August Jackson: [00:24:49] Yeah. I mean, there, there are definitely some that I really enjoy. There's one I took about four years ago of a nomada cuckoo be hanging out on a flower and, tucked behind it's mid leg are two triungulin larvae of meloid blister beetle. And they're all in focus very well and I really enjoy that photo.  Just because of the drama there.

Andony Melathopoulos: [00:25:15] The larva are, they're laid on the flowers, and they wait for a bee to come.

August Jackson: [00:25:22] Yeah. Yeah. 

Andony Melathopoulos: [00:25:22] It's almost poetic. It's the parasite on the parasite. 

August Jackson: [00:25:26] Exactly. 

Andony Melathopoulos: [00:25:26] Whoa, I just got it. 

August Jackson: [00:25:30] So it's a fun, it's a fun mental image.

Andony Melathopoulos: [00:25:33] Oh, fantastic. 

August Jackson: [00:25:34] Who knows who won that one? If any of them did. So that's one. And then another is: I got a pair of kelistoma phacelii mating at a phacelia flower last summer. And I thought that was particularly neat, just because these are tiny, tiny bees. The mating happens super fast and it was sort of one of those lucky shots where I was trying to photograph the female and the male flew in.

Andony Melathopoulos: [00:26:01] Oh my God. Really? 

August Jackson: [00:26:02] They happened to be in focus, 

Andony Melathopoulos: [00:26:04] Oh, great. Well, I really recommend people: if you want to see some great bee pictures and your on Instagram, follow August; they're really great. So we'll put that link up there. But, thank you so much for taking time. And also just, I really recommend the book, even if you're not in the state or if you're outside the Willamette Valley, it's just really, worth taking a look and is a great read.

August Jackson: [00:26:25] Thank you. This was a ton of fun.

Andony Melathopoulos: [00:26:37] Thanks so much for listening. Show notes with information discussed in each episode can be found at PolliNationpodcast.Oregonstate.edu. We'd also love to hear from you, and there are several ways to connect. For one, you can visit our website to post an episode specific comment, suggest a future guest or topic, or ask a question that could be featured in a future episode.

You can also email us at [email protected]. Finally you can tweet questions or comments or join our Facebook or Instagram communities. Just look us up at OSU Pollinator Health. If you like the show, consider letting iTunes know by leaving us a review or rating. It makes us more visible, which helps others discover PolliNation.

See you next week. 


Learning the bees of your local area can be a daunting task. Most guides and keys, for example, include bees that don’t even exist where you live, and are packed with hard-to-understand terminology. This week we talk to August Jackson, who has come up with a solution – a concise guide to the bees of the Willamette Valley (The Bees of the Willamette Valley: A comprehensive guide to the genera). August is the Interpretation Coordinator at Mount Pisgah Arboretum, helping to develop the Arboretum’s interpretive exhibits and adult educational programming. He has been studying and photographing bees and other pollinating insects in the region for over five years, and his photographs have appeared in a number of publications. August regularly teaches classes and delivers talks on pollination ecology and bee identification around the state. Most recently, he is assisting with the Oregon Bee Project in teaching basic bee taxonomy to volunteers conducting a statewide census of Oregon’s bee species.

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Links Mentioned:

August’s book pick: The Bees in Your Backyard (Wilson and Messinger Carril, 2015), Bees of the World (Michener)

August’s go-to-tool: Canon 80D camera, Canon Speedlight Flash

August’s favorite bee picture: Nomada and Chelostoma

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