Researchers take advantage of photography technology developed by the U.S. Army to capture beautiful portraits of bees native to North America. Bees are the workhorses of the insect world. By transferring pollen from one plant to another, they ensure the next generation of the fruits, nuts, vegetables, and wildflowers we so enjoy. There are 4,000 species of North American bees living north of Mexico, says Sam Droege, head of the bee inventory and monitoring program at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).
Only 40 of them are introduced species, including the European honeybee. (See “Pictures: Colored Honey Made by Candy-Eating French Bees.”)
Most of the natives are overlooked because “a lot of them are super tiny,” Droege says. “The bulk of the bees in the area are about half the size of a honeybee.”
The native species also go unnoticed because they don’t sting, he adds. They quietly go about their business gathering pollen from flowers in gardens, near sand dunes, or on the edges of parks.
The bee pictured above is a species of carpenter bee from the Dominican Republic known as Xylocopa mordax. It nests in wood or yucca stems, and is closely related to the U.S. species that chews through the wood in backyard decks.
Finding out after the fact that “all the bees are gone and now we’re screwed,” says Droege, is not what he wants to see happen.
But to complete the bee inventory, the biologist and his colleagues needed to identify exactly which species were being sent to them by researchers from around the country.
That’s easier said than done, because so many of North America’s native bee species are so small.
Even those with some experience could look carefully and say at most, “yes, that’s a little bee,” Droege explains. “There are maybe five people in the U.S. who could identify bees.”
Rather than compiling a physical collection of identified bees—which not everyone would be able to come and examine—Droege decided to do the next best thing: He started a photo catalog of bee species.
Catching an insect suspected of biting an ill soldier, and trying to identify it, was laborious and not always accurate, says Gutierrez. There are about 80,000 species of mosquito in the world, but only a handful bite and transmit disease.
Identification guides used at the time by soldiers in the field were more suited to experts already familiar with the insect groups.
“That wasn’t really working well for the soldiers who were relatively new to this,” Gutierrez says. When asked what would make their lives easier, the soldiers said “just give us a picture.”
Four years ago, Gutierrez came up with a system that consisted of a camera fitted with a macro lens, a mount with a slider, and digital software suitable for stitching pictures together.
Once Droege trained sufficiently on the system to build his own setup, he started making pictures and posting them on the photo-sharing site flickr.com in 2010.
The bee pictured above, known as Augochloropsis sumptuosa, is a sand specialist, he explains. “It hangs out [on the] sand hills of North Carolina. You’ll see them on the Eastern Shore in the dune areas.”
This species forages for pollen from flowers located on the edges of those sand dunes.
This species, known as Anthophora affabilis, inhabits Badlands National Park in South Dakota. Its tongue, sticking down to the left, is a drinking straw combined with a tongue, says Droege. “It’s a two for one.”
“Once you blow [the bees] up to the size of a German shepherd and they have good hair, people start paying attention,” he says. “They’re like aliens from another world.”
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