The flowers and the bees

Hannah Creary says her Summer Research Scholarship involved “ten amazing weeks working in one of New Zealand’s coolest museums with centuries old herbarium specimens and some pretty neat people”.

Hannah spent last summer working on a research project with Dr Carlos Lehnebach, curator of the herbarium at Te Papa Tongarewa, tracking changes in samples of native flowers over time driven by changes in bee species in New Zealand.

“I genuinely couldn’t think of anything I’d rather do more than spend my summer doing scientific research,” Hannah says. “It’s something I have always wanted to do, and by the end of last year I felt confident enough in my skills to know I was ready to take on some real research.”

Hannah began her project by sorting through the extensive collection of native flowering plants in the Te Papa Tongarewa herbarium collection. Once Hannah and Dr Lehnebach had an idea of what material was available, they were able to formulate a case study, deciding to use plant samples from different points in New Zealand’s past to track changes over time and looking particularly at whether the introduction of social bee species to New Zealand had an impact on native plants.

“We wanted to use historical museum species as a window into the past,” Dr Lehnebach says.

“I had never really considered the amount of time that goes into choosing a research topic, and how narrow and restrictive they often have to be for a multitude of reasons,” Hannah says. “I had to accept that I couldn’t investigate everything at once—I came across so many interesting things with the potential to be investigated.”

Hannah spent most of the summer dissecting and measuring flowers under a microscope and then analysing the results.

“We were able to conclude with certainty that herbarium specimens can be utilised as an important tool for tracking physical changes over time,” Hannah says. “This is significant because most native flowers are small and difficult to measure fresh, let alone when they have been dried for over a century! This means herbarium specimens could be used in studies tracking the impact of volcanic eruptions, the introduction of new pollinators, and even climate change.

“Our case study tracking changes caused by social bees using the flowers was quite small and didn’t show any significant trends, but we could expect to see clearer trends with more samples or with samples taken over a longer time scale, as well as including all different functional types of flowers—in this study we only measured open access type flowers.”

Hannah won the ‘Most Engaging Demonstration of Research’ award for a video she made about her research and entered into the Summer Gold competition, which any student who completes a Summer Research Scholarship can enter.

“This award really validates my work in an area I’m so passionate about,” Hannah says. “The competition itself was also one of the reasons I wanted to apply for a scholarship.

“I was always going to enter a video—I love the challenge of taking something so scientific and translating it so it’s interesting for everyone. It also felt really good to be able to create and win with something that draws attention to the scope of amazing things that are being done with the collections within museums.”