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Student Spotlight Interview: Vera Pfeiffer

by Chloe‘ Skye

Summary Vera Pfeiffer was serving the past academic year as a Fulbright Student Researcher through an affiliation with Mendel University in Brno, Czechia. She does research on how the scale of agriculture affects bumblebee foraging patterns. Read on to see what traditional village bee hives are like and how the Communist period affects her subject. She does not have Czech ancestry but doesn’t mind if you call her Věra!

Fast Facts  
Originally from: Virginia
Age: 31
American University: University at Wisconsin, Madison - Environmental Ecology
Czech University: Mendel University
Favorite Czech word or phrase: ’jedna báseň’, a poem, as in, “This food is like a poem!” (very delicious)
Favorite Czech food: segedinský guláš (a type of goulash with cabbage)
Favorite Quote: Co jsi to provedl, Pepíku?” – from a Cimrman play

Tell me about your research.
I study agriculture and resource management, including urban and forested areas surrounding Brno; for example, in Šlapanice. The scale of agriculture is the more traditional, smaller scale but there are also some areas with largescale agriculture more like the US, and these were consolidated during Communism. My research is about how that gradient affects bumblebee foraging patterns. In the US, small farms and big farms are more heterogeneously distributed, whereas here you can see the contrast more conspicuously. It’s easier to study landscape-level processes in these more representative areas.

Where do the bees come in?
I take samples from bumblebees after catching them with hand nets and anesthetizing them briefly. To understand something about bees, you should know that they use their front legs to grab on and land and their back legs to collect pollen. I collect their middle legs, which they don’t need to forage. It may sound terrible, but it’s not! This helps me study the community foraging differences in terms of farm size and urban and forest boundaries.

Did you encounter any difficulties?
It was pretty funny walking around in the fields. There was a lot of human interaction in these small towns outside of Brno. Sometimes I could explain my research in Czech, but sometimes it was too difficult!

Why did you choose to come here specifically?
I chose Czechia because it’s a very good example of [landscape distribution]. Aldo Leopold, who founded the field of Ecology and was a professor at Wisconsin, visited CZ and was influenced by the landscape planning strategies as well as local management ethic. This includes the hunter clubs that needed to do surveys of the wildlife, take wildlife management classes and keep track of it in their area to be a hunter.

I have heard of that and it is interesting how the labor is distributed among people who hunt. What do you think about the Czech attitude towards the environment?
There are areas where people are still very connected to producing their own food, like community garden areas with plots together, while during Communism a lot of the larger areas were consolidated into big farms. Nowadays some families take pride in their tradition of community resource management, while some are more distant.

Have you seen any examples of traditional beekeeping?
I once visited a village in the countryside and got the opportunity to see traditional bee hives. There was a large stump with a face carved into it, with holes in the mouth where the bees go in and out. It was like a big, round, hollow piece of wood with a decorated top and was really interesting for me!

What about the results of your research?
I am still working on it. First, I need to finish the DNA extraction and genetic work on the bees. This isolates rapidly changing DNA sections and is very useful in an ecological sense for family clustering that captures the most diverse aspects of their genetic diversity. This way I can estimate colony density and do colony assignment in order to map the colony foraging.