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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
For more information, please consult www.beautifulbees.org