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Watch Behavioral Ecologist Researcher Rachael Bonoan at Work

giant dandelion

Hi, I’m Rachael! I’ve been studying insects for eight years, but I’ve been observing them for most of my life. As a kid, I spent summer evenings collecting June bugs, moths, caterpillars; whatever I could find. I kept my finds in mesh bug cages for a couple of hours, made observations, and set them free. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was building a foundation in field biology!

searching for cats

In April, I began my fieldwork by searching lupine for Puget blue caterpillars (baby butterflies!). The caterpillars have spent the winter underground and make their way to the soil surface as it warms up. During this time of the year, the prairie is wet most mornings —my rain pants keep me dry and comfortable while on the ground.

In high school, my favorite subjects were biology and anatomy and physiology. So I went to college at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth as a biology major. My plan was to go to medical school. But everything changed when I received a fellowship to study butterfly nutrition. 

One day, while I was chasing a butterfly through a meadow, it hit me. Natasha, my mentor, got paid to catch and study insects. I could get paid to do what I had been doing my whole life too! I continued my biology major after my internship. But instead of medical school, my focus was on graduate school where I could study insects. 

After college, I joined the Starks Lab at Tufts University and studied honey bees. There, I learned how to design experiments after making observations, learned how to keep bees, and mentored students. Studying honey bees also helped me meet a lot of awesome people beekeepers! While in graduate school, I co founded the Boston Area Beekeepers Association. I even travelled around the U.S. to share my research with beekeepers.

Puget blue caterpillar

After they crawl up from their winter long “nap,” called diapause, the bright green caterpillars eat lupine leaves and stems. During this time the caterpillars are protected by ants! When a caterpillar is threatened (say, by a wasp), it signals to the ants for help. The ants come to the caterpillar’s rescue. Once danger has passed, the caterpillar secretes a tiny sugar droplet – a tasty snack – as a “thank you” for  the ants.

Now that I have my PhD, I am a researcher at both Tufts University and Washington State University. I study the Puget blue butterfly, which is only found in the Pacific Northwest. I spend my field season in Washington state and the rest of the year at Tufts (near Boston, MA). At Tufts I analyze data, write papers, and do lab work. One of my favorite things about my job is the variety.

Hanna

Once they grow to about half an inch, the caterpillars bury themselves underground a second time. There they spin their chrysalis, where they will transform into a butterfly. While the caterpillars are transforming underground, we track lupine growth above ground. Hanna, a Tufts University undergraduate, helps count lupine leaves and flowers. Hanna’s floppy hat keeps her cool while working on the sunny prairie.

Puget blue butterfly

At some point in mid-May, the Puget blues emerge as adult butterflies! Here, a bright blue male butterfly sips nectar from a daisy. Nectar provides butterflies with important nutrients such as sugars and amino acids.

There are days when I spend all my time outside, there are days when I spend all my time on the computer, and there are days when I get to teach college students about insects! Recently, with a group of Tufts students, I cofounded the Tufts Pollinator Initiative. Together we planted three pollinator-friendly gardens on the Tufts campus and taught people how they can help pollinators in their own backyards. In addition to my research, I enjoy hiking, reading, baking, and photography. You may be able to guess what my favorite photography subject is…insects!

surveying population

Once the butterflies emerge, we survey the prairie to determine how many butterflies live there. To do this, we zig-zag along the prairie, catching and counting butterflies, until we have walked the whole prairie! To do this, I carry my butterfly net and small plastic containers so I can look at the butterflies more closely. My overalls are my go-to field pants, since they have lots of useful pockets. I also make sure to wear my own floppy hat and carry plenty of water. When counting butterflies, I walk 6-8 miles!

bumble bee

Sometimes I take a break to look at the other insect pollinators buzzing around. Bumble bees collect pollen from lupine flowers and pack it into “pollen baskets” made of special hairs on their back legs. Here, a bumble bee collects bright orange pollen from lupine flowers.

lab photo
From left to right: Hanna Brush, Undergraduate, Tufts University; Myself; Atticus Murphy, Graduate Student, Tufts University (behind); Cheryl Schultz, Associate Professor, Washington State University; Elizabeth Crone, Professor, Tufts University; Kelsey King, Graduate Student, Washington State University

It takes a lot of help to get my fieldwork done in only a few short months. Equipped with butterfly nets, sun protection, and hiking boots, we are ready to walk the prairie and search for butterflies!

Word Of Advice:

Stay curious and never stop asking questions! Among other things, a good scientist is openminded, observant, inquisitive, and creative. If you hone these skills, you can be successful in many different STEM careers. Also, the more questions you ask, the more likely you are to discover a career path that you didn’t know existed. When I was a kid, I had no idea I could spend my days outside catching insects and doing science. But here I am, and I love my job!