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Hair Bands and Giant Trousers: A Lesson in How Little I Know About Bees

This article is brought to you by the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP). Read our other articles on the National Geographic Voices blog featuring the work of our iLCP Fellow Photographers all around the world.

Text and photos by Clay Bolt, Fellow at the International League of Conservation Photographers.
www.claybolt.com / www.beautifulbees.org
While many species of bees are in decline a few such as the Common Eastern Bumble Bee (Bombus impatiens) seem to be gaining ground. Could they be filling the void left by species such as the Rusty Patched Bumble Bee (Bombus affinis) that are less common today or are they responding to rising temperatures, which makes it possible for them to inhabit areas that were previously too cool?
While many species of bees are in decline a few such as the Common Eastern Bumble Bee (Bombus impatiens) seem to be gaining ground. Could they be filling the void left by species such as the Rusty Patched Bumble Bee (Bombus affinis) that are less common today or are they responding to rising temperatures, which makes it possible for them to inhabit areas that were previously too cool?

For months I have been reciting bee terminology with the molasses-thick rhythm of Allen Ginsberg’s incantation in The Clash’s “Ghetto Defendant:” Metaplura. Propodeum. Marginal cell. Integum (pause). Gradulus. Plumose. Spinose. Rugose (pause). Though the words taste sweet on my tongue, all but a few elude digestion. Science is humbling to a guy like me. The complexity of nature, even more so. Bottom line: I have a lot to learn about bees. Like a whole lot. Like…mostly everything.

Clay Bolt photographing insects in the Field-studio in California for National Geographic. Photo Credit: Neil Losin / Day’s Edge Productions
Clay Bolt photographing insects in the Field-studio in California for National Geographic. Photo Credit: Neil Losin / Day’s Edge Productions

Earlier this year I embarked on an adventure to meet, document and ultimately tell the stories of as many of North America’s approximately 4,000 species of native bees as possible. I hope to share their beauty, the challenges they face and ultimately use this effort to help us all learn more about what we can do to protect these precious insects. If I’m going to be even remotely successful I need to possess, at the very least, a reasonable grasp of the finer points of bee identification.

Metallic Green Bee (Agapostemon sp).
Metallic Green Bee (Agapostemon sp).

It wasn’t so long ago that I was practically clueless about our native bees. It’s commonly accepted that the introduced European or Western Honey Bee (Apis mellifera) is, without question, an incredibly effective, crucial pollinator throughout its present range. However, what is often overlooked is that if our population continues its current trajectory, and the pressures of our fellow Earthlings continue to increase exponentially, it is in everyone’s best interest to take a pause and look closer at the state of nature. We must now carefully examine our native pollinators and attempt to determine what is really going on. Chances are, this will result in some mental recalibration regarding our dear old friend the honey bee and the burden that we have placed solely upon its fuzzy little thorax.

All bees face a wide range of natural predators. In this image, a honey bee (Apis mellifera) has been captured by an ambush bug (Phymata sp) that had blended perfectly into a goldenrod.
All bees face a wide range of natural predators. In this image, a honey bee (Apis mellifera) has been captured by an ambush bug (Phymata sp) that had blended perfectly into a goldenrod.

As biologists gain more insight into the ways in which native bees influence food production some surprising findings are coming to light. For example, a study conducted by UC Davis researchers revealed that honey bees are more effective pollinators when native bees and other native pollinators are present. Another effort that was highlighted in a recent article indicated that fruit set in surveyed crops was only 14% greater when A. mellifera was present. The ‘insurance effect,’ as it is sometimes called, implies that as the number of different species of bee increases, so does effective pollination. As with most scenarios involving nature, the more you investigate, the more complexity you’ll find. To paraphrase Donne, perhaps no bee is a pollinator unto itself.

A Metallic Green Bee (Agapostemon splendens) collecting pollen and nectar.
A Metallic Green Bee (Agapostemon splendens) collecting pollen and nectar.

The Pitfalls of Not Knowing

I recently participated in a panel discussion that centered around the presentation of a touching documentary entitled The Lost Bird Project. The film follows artist Todd McGrain’s efforts to place sculptures of extinct birds into the habitats where they once lived. The closing line of the film really struck a chord with me: “…forgetting is another kind of extinction.”  This left me wondering, if forgetting can be equated with extinction, then how much more detrimental might not ever knowing be? In regard to bees (and other unseen small creatures for that matter) our tendency to generalize nature is of great concern to me: bees (honey producer, stinging), snakes (venomous), bears (man-eater or stuffed toy), forests (forever and ever, amen). After all, it is human nature to categorize things into manageable bits. It is this ability that has undoubtedly played a role in our knack of flourishing throughout the ages, allowing us to develop strategies to avoid danger and locate food. However, in a time when the natural tapestry is adrift in the winds of anthropocentric induced change, perhaps it is time to trim the sails and count each fiber. Generalization is no longer a safe modus operandi.

Rusty Patched Bumble Bee (Bombus affinis) specimen in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park collection. This bee has declined greatly over the past 15 years due to an introduced pathogen.
Rusty Patched Bumble Bee (Bombus affinis) specimen in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park collection. This bee has declined greatly over the past 15 years due to an introduced pathogen.

Earlier this summer I spent some time with Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP) entomologist Becky Nichols. Becky kindly offered, on a foggy Saturday morning, to give me a tour of the park’s extensive bee collection. One species in particular caught my attention.  Packed away amongst cases of preserved insects were several specimens of Bombus affinis; an insect commonly known as the Rusty Patched Bumble Bee. In life, this species is a gorgeous yellow fluff-ball of a bee whose workers bear a rusty-orange kiss of color on the second segment of their abdomen. Fifteen years ago this bee was a common sight and a valuable pollinator throughout its historic range, extending from North America’s Upper Midwest down through the East Coast. Today, the Rusty Patched Bumble Bee only inhabits 13% of its historic foraging grounds and hasn’t been seen in GSMNP since 2000. While this bee is facing pressures common to all pollinators such as habitat loss and pesticides, the real culprit seems to be a nasty pathogen that hitchhiked across the Atlantic within the guts of imported European bumble bees brought over to pollinate greenhouse tomatoes.

Rusty Patched Bumble Bee (Bombus affinis) foraging in Wisconsin, one of the few places where it can still be found in the wild.
Rusty Patched Bumble Bee (Bombus affinis) foraging in Wisconsin, one of the few places where it can still be found in the wild.

As I sat looking at several preserved specimens of the Rusty Patched Bumble Bee, with the color faded from their bodies and life gone from their now dull eyes, I couldn’t help but wonder if I was looking at a ghost in the making. The collection also included a Passenger Pigeon frozen in eternal flight; another spirit from the past also taken for granted until it was lost forever. Millions of these birds once blackened the sky from dawn until dusk, and it was assumed that they would just always ‘be.’ It’s just as tempting, as one gazes across a meadow buzzing with bumble bees, to dismiss any threats to their well being as hype and politically driven hysteria. That is, of course, until one takes the time to notice which bees have –or rather have not– punched the clock and shown up for work. Generalization is a dangerous game.

Many native North American bees are overlooked because of their small size. Here a very small Sweat Bee (Lasioglossum sp) visits a Bee-Balm Flower (Monarda didyma).
Many native North American bees are overlooked because of their small size. Here a very small Sweat Bee (Lasioglossum sp) visits a Bee-Balm Flower (Monarda didyma).

While it is unrealistic to expect everyone to become a bee expert, one thing is for certain: it is going to take more than just a group of vocal scientists to protect our native species. We all must do our part. Skeptics and economists are fond of asking about the value of a single species in peril (as if its own right to simply exist isn’t enough). It is fortunate for bees that we are able to assign a monetary value to their contribution to our lives. However, I can’t help but believe that a field devoid of the sound of buzzing bees is a cost that even the most gifted bean counter can’t quantify. Poverty doesn’t just show up when the coins run out.

A Sweat bee (Halictus poeyi) prepares to land on an Aster next to a Metallic Green Bee (Agapostemon splendens).
A Sweat bee (Halictus poeyi) prepares to land on an Aster next to a Metallic Green Bee (Agapostemon splendens).

Studying Bees is Good For the Heart

I stood sweating, heart beating in my ears, in the midst a beautiful wildflower meadow in South Carolina’s upcountry. It was a hot, muggy summer day and I cursed my English heritage and pale skin for allowing me to wither like dead grass in the intense sunlight. Since childhood, I have been making an utter fool of myself, running through fields chasing insects with varying degrees of whoops and excited yelps. This day was no different. Parents quickly herded small children away and a surprised deer fled at a breakneck pace from this dripping, tomato colored creature in an oversized hat and glasses.

One of the most feisty bees that I have photographed to date: a male Fuzzy-legged Leafcutter Bee (Megachile (Xanthosaurus) melanophaea). Some male leafcutter bees have fur covered front legs, which are used to obscure the eyes of the females during mating.
One of the most feisty bees that I have photographed to date: a male Fuzzy-legged Leafcutter Bee (Megachile (Xanthosaurus) melanophaea). Some male leafcutter bees have fur covered front legs, which are used to obscure the eyes of the females during mating.

I had just spotted a very interesting bee and wasn’t going to let something as unimportant as dignity or self-respect stand in the way of getting a closer look. After a couple of failed attempts at netting the mystery insect, I successfully captured a large female and peered at her in my trembling hands. Was it? Could it be? I asked myself these questions aloud since talking to myself in public couldn’t possibly make things anymore embarrassing at this point. She stared seductively at me with the most beautiful pale blue-green eyes, dense scopal hairs gilded golden with pollen and gorgeous caramel stripes. This was one sexy bee!  Surely she was…the one.

Pure Green Bee (Augochlora pura).
Pure Green Bee (Augochlora pura).

Since embarking on my study of bees, I have often admired illustrations of the lovely caramel colored, striped forms of Mining Bees in the family Anthophora, which are commonly found throughout North America. I have stopped short of writing Anthophora over and over in my field notebook like a pop-band obsessed teen, but it was touch-and-go for a while. The fast flying, bumble bee sized insect that I now held in my hand certainly seemed to fit the bill and matched the image in my mind.

One of the largest families of native North American bees is Halictidae, which includes gorgeous insects such as Augochloropsis metallica, a species commonly known as a Metallic Green Bee.
One of the largest families of native North American bees is Halictidae, which includes gorgeous insects such as Augochloropsis metallica, a species commonly known as a Metallic Green Bee.

When it comes to identifying bees, I have come a long way compared to what I knew this time last year. I am now fairly (and foolishly) confident with the species that I encounter on a regular basis and that makes me happy. The bad news is that my confidence can and often does betray me, which in-turn makes me look like the distal end of a bee’s abdomen (go vocab). This is especially true when, after much deliberation, I blurt out my infantile taxonomic goos-goos to fellow members of the Bee Admiration Society only to discover that I’m not even in the right neighborhood. As bee expert John Ascher has pointed out, don’t make a guess at a species until you at least know the tribe that they are in. But it was fuzzy, and had stripes and…sigh.

Holcopasites caliopsidis is a rarely seen, tiny North American cuckoo bee that is a cleptoparasite of equally small bees in the genus Calliopsis.
Holcopasites calliopsidis is a rarely seen, tiny North American cuckoo bee that is a cleptoparasite of equally small bees in the genus Calliopsis.

It turns out that my temptress was actually a Long-horned Bee in the genus Svastra Svastra aegis to be exact. To my credit, she did bear some superficial resemblance to certain Anthophora species. My identification troubles began when I failed to note some of the subtle traits that denote this impressive bee’s identity. Key points, like being able to discern the difference between integumental and hair bands (and I don’t mean Mötley Crüe), recognizing a characteristic patch on the scutellum, and not taking the time to look even more closely at the bee’s marginal cells, all of which led to my misidentification. Granted, the fact that I even have some vague knowledge of those terms made me feel like a badass (another glaring misidentification). My excitement betrayed my neophytic identification skills. It was then that something rather unexpected happened: There, before my very eyes, two of the legends of the bee world began a rapid discourse concerning the identity of my mystery bee. There was a mention of spatulate hairs, forecoxal spines and something called giant trousers, which was the one term that I could actually understand since this bee was obviously sporting some fabulous leggings.

Long-horned Bee (Svastra aegis).
Long-horned Bee (Svastra aegis).

During this interesting bout of back and forth it suddenly dawned on me that while I will probably never learn as much about bees as these guys will forget in their lifetime, even amongst the greats there is still room for healthy speculation as to a species’ identity on occasion.  Although my initial pass at the species’ identity was incorrect, I wouldn’t have even been in the ballpark two years ago. I was progressing! But beyond that, even having some notion of what I was looking at had made my world just a little bit bigger. When we take the time to notice nature even a walk from the car to the office door can transform a forced march into a glimpse into the extraordinary.

Long-horned Bees get their common name from the males’ long 13-segmented antennae, which are used to follow the pheromones of the female bees.
Long-horned Bees get their common name from the males’ long 13-segmented antennae, which are used to follow the pheromones of the female bees.

Conservation Begins at Home

How often have you heard enthusiastic proclamations of love for tigers, penguins, polar bears and orangutans? Perhaps you’ve said these things with good intentions yourself. I know that I have. But let me ask you, how many of us actually do anything at all to improve their existence beyond speaking a few words of support? In truth, conservation begins at home in the way we live our lives and in the choices that we make each day.

A female Thistle Long-horned Bee (Melissodes desponsa) sleeps on a goldenrod panicle. Solitary bees will often sleep away from the nest by clamping their mandibles onto a bit of vegetation.
A female Thistle Long-horned Bee (Melissodes desponsa) sleeps on a goldenrod panicle. Solitary bees will often sleep away from the nest by clamping their mandibles onto a bit of vegetation.

Personally, I can think of no better or easier way to transform words of support for conservation into conservation action than by taking steps to ensure the well being of bees. While learning to identify every species that you encounter can be challenging and somewhat unrealistic, protecting them is much easier: Leave a little unmowed green space, plant native wildflowers, leave a bare patch of soil for nesting, support local insect-friendly farms. If a neighborhood commits to protecting bees and pollinators, how many thousands of lives will be improved? What if the movement spreads to a community, a city, and a state? The cost: very little. The potential outcome: huge!

A Black-tailed Bumble Bee (Bombus melanopygus) flies in front of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge.
A Black-tailed Bumble Bee (Bombus melanopygus) flies in front of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge.

We have an opportunity to do something good right now. Although bees are feeling the weight of our lifestyle choices, out of the thousands of species that remain, we can choose now, at this pivotal point, to work together to do our very best to lessen that burden. This is real conservation in action and we can all play a part. It’s not enough to lean on elected decision makers, because each one of us –from the young to the old– are, in fact, the most important decision makers.

Although the vast majority of native North American bees are solitary, some species, such as this Lasioglossum Bee, live in communal nests with one central opening that leads to several nesting chambers that are used by a single female. Individuals will take turns playing guard. This small nest opening is barely larger than the head of a pin.
Although the vast majority of native North American bees are solitary, some species, such as this Lasioglossum Bee, live in communal nests with one central opening that leads to several nesting chambers that are used by a single female. Individuals will take turns playing guard. This small nest opening is barely larger than the head of a pin.

For my part, the quest to tell the story of North America’s native bees will undoubtedly take me well beyond the time limit and scope that I’ve assigned to the project. There will be plenty more stumbles, misidentifications, and excitement along the way. I hope that many of you will join me on this path and will come to love these beautiful creatures as much as I do. More importantly, I hope that you will do whatever you can to ensure their survival. I am reminded of the well known quote by Baba Dioum, “In the end we will conserve only what we love. We will love only what we understand. We will understand only what we are taught.” Certainly, now more than ever, the bees need as much conservation, love and understanding as we can give.

Metallic Green Bee (Augochloropsis metallica) visits a Black-eyed Susan. This is one the beautiful native North American bees that has been given the unfortunate common name of 'Sweat Bee.'
Metallic Green Bee (Augochloropsis metallica) visits a Black-eyed Susan. This is one the beautiful native North American bees that has been given the unfortunate common name of ‘Sweat Bee.’
Leaf-cutter Bee (Megachile gemula) with cut Eastern Red Bud (Cercis canadenis) leaf.
Leaf-cutter Bee (Megachile gemula) with cut Eastern Red Bud (Cercis canadenis) leaf.
A Metallic Green Bee (Augochloropsis metallica) falls prey to an Ambush Bug (Phymata sp). Ambush bugs are clever predators that possess incredible camouflage and the ability to mimic the sounds of their potential prey as a way of drawing them close enough for capture.
A Metallic Green Bee (Augochloropsis metallica) falls prey to an ambush bug (Phymata sp). Ambush bugs are clever predators that possess incredible camouflage and the ability to mimic the sounds of their potential prey as a way of drawing them close enough for capture.
Cuckoo Bee (Nomada sp), resting
Cuckoo Bee (Nomada sp), resting.

For more information, please consult  www.beautifulbees.org

 

Comments

  1. Clay Bolt
    November 6, 2014, 3:02 pm

    Hi Celeste,

    Thanks for the info on the app. Yes, that is an excellent tool that I hope that readers will check out!

    Also, thanks for sharing the tip on the yellow and black abdomen as it might be very helpful for readers. I was aware of that but it is a great bit of info to share. What I was attempting to say with the caption was that the bee was pollinating and collecting nectar, which is accurate for males and females, regardless, it is great to clarify!

    My best,
    Clay

  2. Pat Tack
    England
    November 1, 2014, 10:23 am

    An interesting article, Clay. As a fellow photographer your comments on my husband’s hyper-macro work would be much appreciated. He has worked ceaslessly during and after gaining his BAhons in wildlife and Environmental photography, to perfect his techniques with lighting, equipment and to capture as much detail of the subject as possible. http://garytackwildphotos.zenfolio.com/p113719633

  3. celeste ets-hokin
    oakland, ca
    October 31, 2014, 6:44 pm

    Hi, again, Clay –
    Thanks to Sean for that astute catch on the Agapostemon male. You may already know this, Clay, but a quick way to identify males of this genus is by their yellow and black striped abdomens. Females of Agapostemon species are either entirely bright green or have a WHITE and black striped abdomen (and of course, our industrious females are usually carrying a conspicuous load of pollen on their hind-leg scopae, lacking in males – who as we know don’t contribute to any nest-provisioning enterprises :)).
    BTW, I posted an earlier comment which may not make it to the board, as I included a link to another site (which is likely forbidden). So here it is, sans link:
    Thanks, Clay, for your captivating sequel article, chronicling your journey of discovery through the world of native bees. And thank you also for encouraging gardeners across North America to play an important role in the conservation of these critical pollinators, by creating habitat for them in residential and community gardens.
    Did you know that now there’s a BEE-UTIFUL new app for that? I hope that you and your readers will check out “Wild Bee Gardens” for iPhone and iPad, and create a joyful buzz (in the key of Bee, of course)!

  4. Celeste Ets-Hokin
    Oakland, CA
    October 31, 2014, 6:16 pm

    Hi, Clay –
    Thanks for this captivating sequel article, chronicling your journey of discovery through the world of native bees. And many thanks also for encouraging gardeners to play an important role in the conservation of these critical pollinators, by creating habitat for them in residential and community gardens.
    Did you know, Clay, that now there’s a BEE-UTIFUL new app for that? Check it out, and create some joyful buzz (in the key of Bee, of course): http://www.appstore.com/wildbeegardens

  5. Clay Bolt
    October 31, 2014, 2:55 pm

    Hi Sean,

    You are correct. Thanks for pointing that out and clarifying for readers.

    My best,
    Clay

  6. Sean McCann
    Canada
    October 30, 2014, 4:45 pm

    Your second Agapostemon is not collecting pollen; it is a male.

  7. Clay Bolt
    October 27, 2014, 3:56 pm

    Hi Terry,

    Thanks for the comments! Glad to learn that you’re documenting your local native bees. I hope that you can use the info to increase your neighbors awareness of the importance of bees.

    My best,
    Clay

  8. Terry Miesle
    Dundee, IL
    October 24, 2014, 7:03 pm

    Hi! Thanks for posting this article about our variety of native bees. I’ve been keeping track of the inects in our area, and have found 10 species of bumblebees in my yard. Of course plant for the bees. This summer I started a more scientific study at Fermilab’s natural areas, which I’ll publish soon. I posted many pictures from this study and other photos on my Flickr stream. Email me if you want that link.

  9. Terry Miesle
    Dundeee, IL
    October 24, 2014, 6:53 pm

    Thanks for this article bringing our important and varied native bee populations. I have been documenting the bees and other insects in my area and this summer began a more scientific study. I will link to publish my results soon. I posted many pictures on Flickr from this summer’s work. Email me for the link. I have photographed Ten species of bumblebees in my yard alone.