A Bee ID Expert

How well do you know bees? Not just honey bees, but all the other ones – masons, carpenters, diggers, sweat, cutters, bumblers, and the other many thousands of species. If you are like most of us, not so well. There’s a system to identifying the various species. That’s the good news. The bad news is that it might take years to get really good at doing a bee ID.

Oregon State University’s Pollination Podcast interviewed a real bee-ID expert. That’s Sam Droege. I’ve him mentioned before in this blog because of Sam Droege’s amazing bee photography. If you haven’t seen his work, check out his USDA Flickr page, where you can enjoy spectacular photos such as this one of a Chilean bumblebee:

Last week, my friend Andony Melathopoulos interviewed Mr Droege for the Pollination Podcast. They didn’t discuss Sam’s photography but instead focused on the way various species of bees can be identified.

Bee identification is more important than many honey bee fans realize. Beekeepers are having a miserable time keeping honey bee colonies alive (pesticides, urbanization, monoculture, pests, diseases, climate change). Nevertheless, beekeepers have been medicating, feeding, helping, and replacing colonies so that the numbers of hives have actually increased. Honey bees are being maintained, but few people are helping the other 20,000 species of bees. Some of their numbers are dwindling. If we understand which bee species are disappearing (and why), we might find ways to help them. In turn, that can help honey bees survive better.  Bee counts give us information on how well (or poorly) all the bees are doing.

A lot of communities are enlisting citizen scientists to identify and count bees, butterflies, and other pollinating insects. Andony Melathopoulos’s podcast interview of Sam Droege gives us some good ideas about how such surveys and  species recognition can be conducted.

Sam Droege says that some work can be done by volunteers in the field using butterfly binoculars and nets, but he does not recommend it. Observer bias is the problem. Observers don’t see everything. They are distracted. They don’t all work the same – some observers may catch and release a dozen bugs in their block while another observer manages to catch only two. This might be due to insect density – or it might be due to the volunteer’s abilities. Humans simply can not consistently spot everything the same way, time after time.

That’s why traps are used. Traps remove human bias and get a more accurate count of the relative populations of insects in an environment. Although traps kill insects, the number of trapped individuals is extremely tiny (perhaps a few hundred out of a few million) for any particular area. Trapping is harsh, but it provides the best way of knowing how to help the unsampled millions.

So, insects are trapped. Then they are sorted and identified. Sam Droege suggests that the ID process should begin with the volunteer sorting out the most easily distinguished bugs first and leaving the troubling ones for later. Do this instead of picking up each and every specimen one after another and trying to figure out each before moving on to the next.

You might instantly recognize honey bees, bumblebees, leafcutters, flies, particular moths or butterflies, and so on. Count them and separate them first. Save the ones you can not quickly get for further examination later. When you come back to the difficult creatures, don’t spend more than five minutes on each. Droege points out that your time will exponentially increase the longer you take so give it a rest at five minutes. In time, with experience and outside help, you’ll get better at the task.

The podcast wasn’t limited to bee identification. Discussion included pollinator protection and gardening ideas that can help keep pollinators in your yard, the environment healthy, and your ecology balanced. For that conversation, and so much more, go to the podcast. As always, the Pollination Podcast is a good listen.

Would you have recognized the Diphaglossa gayi? (Photo by Sam Droege, USGS)

About Ron Miksha

Ron Miksha is a bee ecologist working at the University of Calgary. He is also a geophysicist and does a bit of science writing and blogging. Ron has worked as a radio broadcaster, a beekeeper, and Earth scientist. (Ask him about seismic waves.) He's based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
This entry was posted in Bee Biology, Outreach, Save the Bees, Science and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to A Bee ID Expert

  1. I would suggest that ALL pollinating species are being affected – by being poisoned – and, until that stops, well; “cause and effect”, yeah?
    This should never have happened. I mean seriously, insecticides are intended to kill insects; so why is anyone surprised?


    • And anyone who thinks that the poisoning stops with the intended target species obviously never read Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring”. Food webs are exactly that – all parts are inextricably interconnected.


  2. Erik says:

    Thanks, Ron, twas a nice episode. I enjoyed the gardening bit where Sam recommended herbs and fruit trees as kind of like putting out a bird feeder. It helps the most common species, so that is good. The specialists that are often most seriously threatened need specific plants in order to reproduce. So we ultimately need both general pollinator food and specialist plants for native species to thrive..

    Liked by 1 person

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