Virginia Working Landscapes


Working on the newest approved project for Headwaters Master Naturalists Chapter definitely has some great moments—if you like tromping around in a field with grasses and wildflowers growing up to your shoulders, and using your GPS to locate an insect trap hidden in the midst of all that beautiful vegetation, then the new Virginia Working Landscapes (VWL) project might be a perfect fit for you!

The HMN Projects Committee approved VWL projects for our membership in May of this year and I’ve been working on their Bee Survey for the past month.  Virginia Working Landscapes is an organization which provides great opportunities for citizen science in a number of different projects every year.  Citizen scientists, many of whom are members of Master Naturalist chapters throughout the state, can work on a variety of bird, plant, pollinator, or riparian surveys which take place each year.  Associated with the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI), VWL provides amazing training opportunities and the survey work itself takes volunteers to some of the most beautiful spots in our beautiful state!

VWL works primarily with private landowners (hence “working” landscapes) to “promote the conservation of native biodiversity and encourage the sustainable use of working landscapes through research, education and outreach” (VWL Mission Statement).  I’ve been working on the bee survey this summer—my site is in Luray at the beautiful White House Farm.  Every two weeks from early June through late July, I’ll make a visit to the site to empty the bee trap that’s placed there.  I admit that when I attended the training for the project in May, I was troubled by the fact that I’d be collecting dead bees.  Everyone else at the training actually seemed pretty unhappy about that too, but when the researchers in charge of the project began to talk about the usefulness of the data that’s been collected over the past two years (they’ve already learned great things about the presence—and absence—of various species of bumblebees in the Valley, and being able to document that this has some definite benefits for conservation efforts), I felt a bit better.   Plus the training itself was amazing—I learned so much about bees in the time I was there, and SCBI has made other training opportunities available to volunteers throughout the summer on a variety of topics.

There are, however, a number of challenges to doing this work.  First is just finding the trap—VWL Project director Olivia Cosby sent me GPS coordinates for my bee trap before my first visit, and my assumption was that it would be pretty easy to find.  Ha.  White House Farm is a really big place, and while there are pathways which wind through the experimental fields there (where the trap is located) the trap itself is, of course, not on a path.  So I definitely got some practice with using the GPS on my phone on my first visit!  On my second visit, the pole supporting the trap had actually almost fallen over, so it wasn’t visible at all from the path.  There was a definite “treasure hunt” aspect to that visit, as I literally had to use the GPS coordinates to bring me directly to the spot where the trap was before I could see it!

Then, there are the ticks.  I usually pull them off myself when I feel them crawling around on the drive home and throw them out the window.  All while trying not to panic and wreck the car.  I really don’t like ticks.  I guess they come with the territory of lush tall grasses though….Good thing we master naturalists are made of strong stuff….

In spite of the challenges, I can hardly imagine a more fun project.  First, White House Farm is like heaven—amazing fields of wildflowers, all the birds that you can imagine in such a spot, with the South Fork of the Shenandoah River meandering along just on the edge of the field where my trap is located.  There are butterflies (actually a part of the project too—after I empty the trap, I do a 20 minute survey of the species of butterflies that are found in the immediate area around it and get to report those data as well), dragonflies, bunnies, rolling hills—what more could a master naturalist want?

Right now, there are two packs of bees from my trap (preserved in alcohol) stored in my freezer (which I see as another advantage—who doesn’t want the opportunity to tell family or guests to be careful of the bees in the freezer when they open the door?).  I’ll deliver those to the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute up in Front Royal in the next week or so.  I still have two more visits to make before the end of the survey, and find myself already feeling sad about completing the work.  It’s an amazing project, and speaks to all of the reasons why I wanted to be a Master Naturalist in the first place.

If you’re similarly inclined, I’d invite you to check out the VWL website—all of this summer’s projects are fully “staffed” so they’re not taking any more volunteers for this season, but next year is coming.   For more information you can check out the Project Proposal on the VMN-VMS website and/or take a look at some of VWL’s website materials here:

– Peggy Plass, Cohort IV, June 2016

Photos by Peggy Plass