A Good News Story: A Blue Bee is Found!

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I am always uplifted and filled with joy and hope when an animal that was thought to be rare or extinct or maybe was never seen before, is found in the wild. This time it is a bee! The beautiful blue calamintha bee, Osmia calaminthae. It was last seen in 2016 in a small-ish area in the Lake Wales Ridge region of Florida. And now it has been seen again!

The blue calamintha bee is a special little bee. And I say little because it is quite small: these bees are only 10-11 mm long. Not only have they been spotted within a specific area in Florida, but they also seem to feed from one particular type of flower: Ashe’s calamint. Ashe’s calamint also happens to be endangered.

The blue calamintha bee specializes in Ashe’s calamint. Photo source: Florida Museum.

The blue calamintha bee is a funny little critter when it comes to pollinating the flowers. When the bee sticks her head in the flower to suck up some nectar, she bobs her head back and forth. The hairs on her face become covered in pollen. So, when she emerges she has a face full of pollen! These bees have been found flying around with big blobs of pollen on their face. It is thought that just like some bees pack pollen into balls on their back legs in order to bring it back to their nest to feed the baby bees, perhaps blue calamintha bees carry the pollen home on their face. Maybe not the most attractive way to do things, but it could work!

Here is a blue calamintha bee feeding from Ashe’s calamint. Her head is probably getting covered in pollen. Photo source: ZooKeys journal.

Blue calamintha bees are a type of solitary bee. Unlike honey bees and bumble bees who live in hives or nests with big families, solitary bees live alone, as their name suggests. They only get together to mate, and then the female lays her eggs in a safe and secluded spot. We’re not sure where blue calamintha bees lay their eggs, but other solitary bees tend to lay their eggs in hollow stems, holes in dead logs, or existing burrows that were made by some other creature. (You know the “bee houses” you can buy in stores and online, that are made up of wooden tubes? These are for solitary bees.) After laying her eggs, the mother bee flies away–she never sees her babies. Then, after the baby bees hatch and are big enough, they fly off to live on their own and they start the cycle again.

So. Back to our good news story. These little blue calamintha bees had not been seen for four years. But then a scientist named Dr. Chase Kimmel spotted them. And not only did he find them in the areas where they were seen before, but he also saw them in six other locations up to 95 km away! That’s really good news. It could mean the population is in good enough shape that it is expanding where it lives, and it is finding good enough food and homes elsewhere.

When Dr. Kimmel saw the rare blue calamintha bees, what did he do? Well, if you watch bees you will quickly discover that they can move very fast. Even scientists have a hard time identifying a bee when it is just flying around. So, scientists have to catch them. And the way scientists identify blue calamintha bees is by looking at specific features on its head. So somehow Dr. Kimmel had to get really close.

The way Dr. Kimmel catches and examines the bees is quite clever. First, he catches the bee in a net. Then, he reaches into the net while holding a plastic bag. Once the bee is in the bag, he holds the bag closed and takes it out of the net to get a closer look. If the bee looks like an Osmia-type bee (remember the blue calamintha bee is technically Osmia calaminthae), he cuts a teeny-tiny piece off the corner of the plastic bag. When the bee crawls to the hole and tries to escape, it gets stuck. Only its head pokes out.

A blue calamintha bee poking her head out of the corner of a plastic bag. Photo source: Chase Kimmel and the Florida Museum.

“So now I have the bee in a bag with just its head sticking out,” Dr. Kimmel told me. “Then I look at its head using a hand lens and look for diagnostic characters that identify this species. Fortunately, these characters are on its face so I look at the hairs on its face and its mandibles [mouthparts] with the hand lens.┬áIf these criteria are met, then I take many photos of its face with a camera to have a record that I caught the bee.” After he takes enough photos, he opens the bag and the bee flies away, unharmed. Pretty cool!

Cutting a hole in a plastic bag that is just big enough for a small bee’s head to fit through is extremely tricky. “If the hole that I make is too big, even by 0.5 mm, the bee may escape,” said Dr. Kimmel. So, he does all of his cutting while the bag and bee are still in the net. If the bee manages to squeeze its body all the way through the hole he cut in the bag, the bee is still in the net. If that happens, he takes out the plastic bag and tries again.

After the bee flies away, there is an added bonus: pollen residue is left in the bag. “We freeze this pollen and analyze it to determine what plants the bee has been visiting,” said Dr. Kimmel. Could the bees be drinking nectar and gathering pollen from plants other than the Ashe’s calamint? Only time will tell!

One other thing Dr. Kimmel has been busy doing is placing a number of “bee condos” around the areas where the blue calamintha bee or Ashe’s calamint has been found. These bee condos have a variety of different sized holes so that Dr. Kimmel and his team can discover what kind of place blue calamintha bees like best to lay their eggs.

A nest box with different sized holes to see which ones the blue calamintha bee likes best. Photo source: Chase Kimmel and the Florida Museum.

So, why has the blue calamintha bee been so tricky to find? One clue could be that Dr. Kimmel and his team have to drive for 30-40 minutes through orange groves to reach the conservation site where the bee has been seen. Humans have converted vast areas of land into food crops, which takes habitat away from blue calamintha bees and other animals. Also, there is a chance that these food crops have been treated with pesticides which can seriously affect the health of the bees. But we need more research to be sure. Dr. Kimmel points out that this is the first time an extensive survey has been done for the little bee, so that he and his team can find out whether its population is increasing or decreasing. Also, their research will uncover what we can do to help the bee.

Dr. Kimmel is hopeful. “While the bee is still very rare and can take a long time to find it when it is present,” he said, “since we’ve found it in many new properties it gives me hope that we can act and help this bee.”

References

Kimmel, C. (May 17, 2020). Personal communication.

Kimmel, C. (May 18, 2020). Personal communication.

Rightmyer, M. G., Deyrup, M., Ascher, J. S., & Griswold, T. (2011). Osmia species (Hymenoptera, Megachilidae) from the southeastern United States with modified facial hairs: Taxonomy, host plants, and conservation status. ZooKeys, 148, 257-278. DOI: 10.3897/zookeys.148.1497

Srinivasan, N. (May 7, 2020). Florida’s rare blue bee rediscovered at Lake Wales Ridge. https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/science/floridas-rare-blue-calamintha-bee-rediscovered/