Survey results: Has the novel coronavirus affected the research you had planned for this year?

By Matt Kelly

Illustration of virus looming over researchers.

The novel coronavirus is the kind of crisis that is affecting every aspect of our lives in ways big and small, obvious and unpredictable. Its impact will be different for every individual and community, but we’ll all feel it. Change as a result will be inevitable.

In the stream of scientific Twitter that I happen to follow, I’ve noticed a few insect researchers mentioning how their research plans for this year have been cancelled or changed as a result of the world’s response to the virus. I wanted to get a sense of how this particular impact of coronavirus might be playing out for the bee research community.

So this past weekend I put out a call to take a quick survey I posted on the Bee Report website: Has the novel coronavirus or any of the societal responses to the virus affected the research you had planned for this year? The call for participation went out through Twitter, both by tagging specific individuals and via retweets. Twenty-one people responded, all but one based in North America (to the best of my knowledge). If we can take this as a reasonable sampling, here is how things are looking for the bee research community predominantly in the U.S. and Canada.

Bar chart showing number of respondents per category: 10 people had to adjust; 7 were not sure; 4 completely cancelled; 0 were carrying on as planned.

The big take away: No one who responded to the survey is proceeding as originally planned this year. Many have cancelled their plans, partly or completely. Everyone has adjusted in some way. Everyone is contending with a pervasive uncertainty.

The comments provided by respondents are incredibly informative about the differing levels of disruption. Here are a select few comments, most of them edited for length.

Had to adjust

“I was planning to work in Italy and Spain for two bee health studies. The studies will be done, but I won’t be able to participate as planned. That’s bad especially for the one in Italy: that was completely my idea and I won’t be able to be there.”

“One important concern is that I cannot ethically or in good conscience obligate my students to work with me in the field as long as we are under Stay at Home orders, for their safety as well as mine… Frankly I haven’t decided what’s doable under these circumstances, but I am going to try some baseline monitoring… I will also dedicate time to a more thorough analysis & consolidation of the data we’ve gathered to date.”

“Experiments examining the effects of heat waves on bumble bee behavior and colony performance both in simulated lab experiments and field based assays… Not sure if I’ll be able to do the lab experiments now given reduced campus capacity, but everything is still up in the air. Field work is still a go as it’s isolated and I do it by myself.”

“I have had to make substantial changes to my normal research program. My physical research lab… is essentially shut down, although we are allowed to continue experiments Where we would lose valuable data if we do not complete them.We are not allowed to start any new experiments, only complete the ones that we are wrapping up. With respect to fieldwork, we are not able to travel to collect bees, which we would normally be doing this time of year… And then finally there are all of the projects that we are waiting on funding for, for example the national native bee monitoring network, that are going to be held up at multiple levels.”

Not sure yet

“All my data collection plans for the spring are delayed and possibly cancelled, depending on when we can begin labwork again. My plans for the field season are also up in the air depending on when we can begin growing plants in the greenhouse and when the research farm will be re-opened.”

“All of our research is currently on hold and the lab is shut down. Much of our USDA and NIH-funded field research happens early in the summer (May and June). While we haven’t had to officially cancel that research yet, it’s certainly looking like that may end up being the case…”

“Community science projects where volunteers come to events to help collect data have been cancelled. Other community science project where people work individually may still happen. One lab study had to be cut short. One replicate that was started later was eliminated. These were bumble bee microcolonies so we had to kill off the microcolonies as well as the parent colonies as we couldn’t make daily observations with limited access to the building.”

“Surveying impacts of different weed management practices on bee visitation to crops and pollination. Also were running experiments to measure effects of heat stress on crop pollination when we were put on Stay Home orders by the governor. Expecting none of this will be possible… Answered “I’m Not Sure Yet” as requests for minimal maintenance work is currently being reviewed by university administration.”

Completely cancelled

“We had planned to conduct surveys for Rusty Patched Bumble Bee queens but have had to cancel that. We may still have a field assistant who is local to the area conduct the surveys, but it’s up in the air. Spending lots of time working on our computer-based/genetics projects now instead!”

“I had a project funded and in place to investigate a rare poppy specialist bee in the Mojave desert (Perdita meconis). This bee is being considered for federal listing and we were supposed to do some population assessment to try and determine where the bee lives and does not. Because the host flower blooms in April, we have had to postpone the research until next year.”

“None of us know what it will really mean for our projects”

This week the British Ecological Society published a story by a Ph.D. student from Cardiff University who also had to cut short his research plans as a result of the pandemic. It involved emergency evacuation from a remote island, plans to get back to the island to recover his work that changed hourly, racing to return home before borders were closed and flights cancelled, and ultimately having to abandon all of his samples.

While none of the situations described by respondents appeared to involve this level of action and drama, I think everyone is probably feeling exactly the same way: “At this stage, none of us know what it will really mean for our projects.”

And that, to me, is the biggest question about all of this coronavirus disruption to bee-related research this year. Are the cancellations and adjustments just a bump in the road that will eventually go unnoticed? Or will we look back and think, “Damn, if only we’d been able to do that work in 2020”?