Allegheny College researchers find potential new species while researching bee diversity

Pity the poor honeybee: Populations of one of the world’s leading pollinators are plummeting, the result of urbanization, pesticide use and disease.

There were 2.59 million honeybee colonies on January 1, 2016, down 8 percent from the 2.82 million present a year earlier for operations with five or more colonies, according to a new USDA estimate. That steep drop is a threat to global agriculture that has the attention of everyone from small farmers to directors of federal government agencies.

But what of Halictus ligatus or the tiny, shiny Augochlorella aurata, two of the more than 4,000 species of bees that, unlike honeybees, are native to the United States?

As honeybees decline, those native bees are increasingly important to pollination. But they’re not grabbing headlines.

“We know a lot about honeybees, but we know relatively little about native species,” said Sam Droege, a wildlife biologist who runs the United States Geological Survey (USGS) Bee Inventory & Monitoring Lab in Beltsville, Md.

Two Allegheny students are changing that.

Senior Paige Hickman and sophomore Kaye Moyer, working under the direction of Assistant Professor of Environmental Science Beth Choate, this summer trapped and catalogued native bees from 17 sites on campus and in Meadville in an attempt to get a handle on the abundance and diversity of native bees in the area.

The work, a continuation of research by other students in 2014 and 2015, is the first such survey of its kind in the region. In May and June alone Hickman and Moyer collected 577 native bees, including something that’s potentially new: a species not yet described by scientists.

Before talking about why anyone would want to spend a summer break collecting insects, here’s a primer on the difference between honeybees and native bees: Honeybees were introduced to North America by European settlers. Native bees are just that — native to the continent — but, unlike honeybees, are solitary. They don’t live in hives, and they don’t make honey. They build nests in the ground and in wood.

Like honeybees, though, native bees are significant pollinators — and that, in a nutshell, is why Hickman and Moyer took up their cause.

“Bees really have a niche in the environment and without them the (ecosystem) would be out of balance,” Moyer said.

On a recent summer afternoon on the Allegheny campus, the environmental science majors worked as a tag team in a Carr Hall lab — Moyer using a strainer to wash the dead bees of dirt and debris, Hickman drying them with a small handheld dryer. (Fun fact: Drying bees makes their hair fluffy, which is cute if you’re a bee-lover and useful if you’re a scientist trying to identify features on a bee’s face and body.)

In addition to simply cataloguing the number and types of bees collected, Moyer and Hickman also want to look at where they were trapped and determine what role land use plays in bee abundance and diversity.

“Where there is more concrete, there is less nesting space available and fewer flowers that they rely on as a food source,” Hickman said. “At Robertson (Athletic Complex, one of the collection sites), there are all naturally occurring flowers compared to downtown where the flowers are mostly in people’s gardens and more ornamental and hybrid species that wouldn’t necessarily be found in nature.”

Earlier in the summer, Hickman, Moyer and Choate visited Droege’s lab. They’d sent him the mystery bee Hickman and Moyer found and Droege — a man with 500 bee species at his fingertips and access to thousands more — said he’d never seen anything like it before. It’s now in the hands of a University of Michigan specialist who will determine if it is indeed a new species.

Droege is easy to talk to and not stingy when it comes to sharing his expertise. He routinely hosts students at the lab, but most, he said, are graduate students.

“The fact that they’re working at that level as undergraduates impresses me immensely,” Droege said of Hickman and Moyer. “Looking back on myself being an undergraduate, I wouldn’t have necessarily taken the initiative. I wouldn’t have even known where to get involved with working on insects, and I would have been too shy” to reach out to experts.

The entire project was a unique opportunity to do hands-on research that could have lasting implications, Choate said.

“What I hope they get out of it is how to think critically about a situation and how to problem-solve,” Choate said. “When you do research you learn how to ask questions and you learn how to get the data you need to answer those questions.”

Choate is working to help Moyer and Hickman publish the work. But the overall goal of the project, both students said, is to effect change. Knowing what types of native bees are here is the first step to helping municipalities and residents know how to attract and support them.


Photo of bumblebee on flower courtesy of Kaye Moyer.