Johnny Randall

Johnny Randall is the director of conservation programs at the North Carolina Botanical Garden. He researches rare plant reintroduction and Venus flytrap genetics as they relate to conservation efforts.

Johnny Randallphoto by Matthew Westmoreland
July 29th, 2020

Q: When you were a child, what was your response to this question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

A: I don’t actually remember being asked this as a child – maybe because people never thought I’d amount to much! I do recall not wanting to be the typical things like a fireman, policeman, or cowboy. I struggled through elementary school because I was always looking out the window.

Q: Share the pivotal moment in your life that helped you choose your field of study.

A: Many of my earliest memories are from being in the natural world. I remember, at about age 3, my fascination with mason bees in the mortar of the bricks of our house. Over the years, I collected and kept spiders, snakes, turtles, lizards, and all kinds of insects and then released them — sometimes by mistake in the house, to the great dismay of my mother. I was generally interested in plants, but it wasn’t until college that I really tuned in to botany.

I was lucky to attend UNC-Charlotte in its “organismal biology” golden age, where I took a dozen classes on the subject. I also worked as a gardener in the UNC Charlotte Botanical Gardens, where I fell under the guidance of mentors who encouraged me to attend graduate school.

a bumblebee

A few images from Randall’s dissertation project, in which he individually numbered hundreds of bumblebees.

Q: Tell us about a time you encountered a tricky problem. How did you handle it and what did you learn from it?

A: I remember solving the problem for one part of my dissertation research on competition for pollination between our native Jewelweeds: Impatiens capensis and Impatiens pallida. This required creating an enclosure called a pollinatium, where I could arrange plants in different ratios to examine the effects on bumblebee foraging behavior. But I also had to find and collect bumblebee colonies — and number each bee.

To locate my first colony, I followed a bumblebee back to an abandoned mouse nest in an old barn. Mouse nests are just the right size and have all the necessary materials bumblebees need. One evening, I puzzled over how to get an old mouse nest full of bumbles into a little box. Even barely touching the nest caused a huge buzzing commotion from the colony. I noticed, though, that a single bee crawled out to inspect the intruder rather than the whole colony mounting an attack. I searched the barn for some sort of container and found an old Mason jar with a lid. By gently disturbing the nest, one bee at a time would come out, angrily climb on my pencil, and then I would tap it into the jar.

After collecting all the bees, I carefully placed the nest into the colony box, but noticed that the queen remained in there with her brood. The next step was tagging the bees. For this challenge, I cooled all the lady bees down in my refrigerator and, one-by-one, attached the tags. In all, I collected 14 bumblebee colonies, which included hundreds of bees.

To make a much longer story short – I was able to control foraging behavior between the two Impatiens species and determine that the yellow-flowered one wins over the orange-flowered one.

Q: Describe your research in 5 words.

A: Impatiens can be a virtue.

Q: What are your passions outside of research?

A: I love canoeing the blackwater rivers of North Carolina, backpacking, hiking, bicycling, traveling, cooking — but mostly eating and drinking — and spending time with my family. A friend told me long ago: “All work and no play makes Johnny a dull boy.” But seriously, you have to give your brain a break and, like I was fond of doing in elementary school, look out the window!

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