National Geographic Daily News

Sasha Ingber

for National Geographic

Published July 11, 2014

Not every bee may count, but Sam Droege is counting every bee.

On Saturdays, the head of the landmark Native Bee Inventory and Monitoring Program at the U.S. Geological Survey leaves his straw-bale house, where bees burrow in the walls, and goes to his office—for pleasure. From his desk, a recycled segment of a lane from a bowling alley, he pores over bee specimens with a microscope.

"I'm looking deeply into [their] eyes to see what they reveal," said Droege. "I'm looking for species in potential trouble, gathering information on their status before they're designated an endangered species." (See "Intimate Portraits of Bees" for more of Droege's bee pictures.)

Droege is pioneering the first national inventory of indigenous wild bees, a task of growing importance. The buzz started in 2006 when honeybees, the non-native species used commercially to pollinate crops, began to mysteriously vanish after leaving their hives. If honeybees continue to wane in coming decades, scientists believe wild bees could save our crops. (See "The Plight of the Honeybee.")

Problems for Pollinators

More than half of managed U.S. honeybee colonies have disappeared in the past ten years. Though native to Eurasia and northern Africa, honeybees pollinate a third of the American diet, from nuts to produce—not to mention coffee and cotton. In 2010 they contributed to more than $19 billion worth of crops. (Related: "U.S. Honeybee Losses Not as Severe This Year.")

Pesticides, fungicides, and viruses, among other factors, have contributed to the honeybees' decline. Though they lack a traditional vertebrate circulatory system, they're vulnerable to parasites, such as the bloodsucking varroa mite, which deforms their bodies and shortens their life span.

Little is known about the hardiness of the honeybee's native counterpart, the mostly solitary wild bee. Many scientists believe that wild bee populations were once greater, but have dwindled as land was developed and agriculture intensified.

Home gardeners may also be contributing to the bees' habitat loss. Gardeners with a love of exotic plants often uproot native ones, not realizing that this deprives most pollinators of their food. Other factors limiting the bees' food supply include the effects of climate change, droughts, floods, and flowers blooming prematurely as the days grow warmer.

The Bees in Our Backyard

"People were collecting bees in the early 1900s, but they weren't doing quantitative analyses," said Georgetown University biologist Edd Barrows.

In 1998, Barrows gathered bees in Dyke Marsh Wildlife Preserve in Alexandria, Virginia, using mesh, tentlike structures called Malaise traps. The bees he collected then—still awaiting examination due to lack of time and funds—could serve as a historical reference point to show scientists how the preserve's bee fauna is changing due to water and air pollution, erosion, and invasive plants.

"We need to have some way of measuring whether native bees are increasing or decreasing," said Droege.

His own survey methods are unconventional, albeit familiar to scientists on shoestring budgets. To collect bees, plastic party cups act as pan traps. (Droege says the idea stems from the 1970s, when butchers gave their customers yellow pans, which people would fill with soapy water to catch bugs outside.)

Workers from New Horizons Supported Services, an organization that helps adults with developmental disabilities in Maryland gain employment, paint the cups to mimic the colors bees prefer in flowers. Then the cups are filled with propylene glycol—the same substance used to maintain moisture in food, medicine, and cosmetics. Its low surface tension means that insects will sink to the bottom. Every two weeks, the traps are emptied by volunteers.

After that the bees are washed, dried, and stored at the USGS lab in repurposed pizza boxes. Their deaths serve as a chance to learn about, and monitor, potentially endangered native bee species.

The biggest problem is telling the bees apart. Bees are often difficult to differentiate, and about 400 species—ten percent of North America's bees—lack names. (Compare that to the 1,000 ant species that have been named.)

"[They're] not something someone like a birder could look at, and say, 'That's a robin,'" said biologist Daniel Kjar of Elmira College in New York.

So Droege spends hours trying to identify species. His team captures the pitting on their skin, the striations of hair on their abdomens, and other physical traits with a macro lens camera—a sort of insect portraiture. Droege says these body features may help bees avoid predation and attract mates.

Harvesting the Unknown

Today, scientists will go to great lengths to study the small insects.

Sean Brady, head of the Smithsonian Institution's Department of Entomology, is studying evolutionary relationships between different bee species. He's sequencing their genetic material, which can cost between $10,000 and $50,000 for a complete genome.

He's also interested in understanding why, among certain bee species that produce offspring twice in a season, the first brood spends its lifetime caring for the second hatching instead of reproducing. The work may help him understand the social behavior and pollination strategy of wild bees.

"The unknown can be a good thing," said Brady. "There is a lot to learn in the next 10 to 20 years."

In 2010 and 2011, Brady and Droege set up traps in the cacti and thorn scrub of Guantanamo Bay, where the native habitat is preserved in the midst of the prison camp. They collected more than a third of the bee species that live on the entire island of Cuba. A new species they discovered was quickly named—Megachile droegei, after Droege.

39 comments
charly case
charly case

But wouldn't it seem that the same neonicotinoid pesticides that are killing the honey bees will end up killing the wild bees as well?  Wouldn't it be wiser to just ban those types of pesticides?  In April 2013 EU member states voted for a continent-wide suspension of neonicotinoid pesticides.  Yet the U.S. is still running commercials on television for Merit and other insecticides and pesticides that contain those very ingredients.  And we wonder where all the bees, butterflies and fireflies have gone.

Bob Metz
Bob Metz

they should come to my property. there's always thousands in my yard and gardens, more and more each year

Paul Cherubini
Paul Cherubini

Honeybees are not dying off - their numbers are increasing both in the USA and Worldwide.  So readers should beware of the questionable information they receive from the National Geographic Society.

Sharon Reeve
Sharon Reeve

Here's to having a messy garden - one and all! Sam what good work you do! Your bees are beautiful and they have good hair!

Tabitha Johnson
Tabitha Johnson

Bees wouldn't be dying nearly as much if people would rein in Monsanto and their evil pesticide-spewing garbage crops. Why wasn't THAT talked about in this article at all?

Barbara Denham
Barbara Denham

Most of the bees I've seen lately, just don't seem to want to fly. Have they travelled to far? Have they become confused? I don't know. I live in the Greater London area in the UK.

K E
K E

Come collect wild bees in my garden and village in South Africa! Lots of native vegetation there (Cape Floristic Kingdom) and I don't know a thing about the bees that visit.


C.j. Green
C.j. Green

The BIML is a very worthy project, and on top of that, I really like Sam Droege's straw bale house with the earthen plaster and his natural garden.  :-) (Y)

raeven wood
raeven wood

This is a ridiculous article about a ridiculous concept. "Mysterious' disappearance? It's not as if the only sign were a tree marked 'CROATAN'. The scathing comment by the beekeeper below represents the common ignorance of commercial interests everywhere: they just don't want to know. 

MJ Darling
MJ Darling

We and all wildlife are being sprayed every day from the air.  Aluminum doesn't only give US autism, Alzheimer's, dementia.  Bees forget where their home is.  Their brains are tiny compared to ours, so they get these diseases much faster.  Barium, strontium, cesium, lead, mercury, numerous other metals, plastics, biologicals and other chemicals, including hugely toxic industrial wastes--that cost $6000 per ton to dispose of properly--are sprayed on us routinely.  They all make us dumber, they all sterilize us, and they all shorten lifespan--it's called genocide...democide...depopulation...the largest mass murder in history...the largest ecocide in history.  Look up several times a day for a few seconds.  Do this for several days and you will see the pattern.  I can't believe there are still people who don't know this.  Two excellent websites to get a PhD in Reality are geoengineeringwatch.org and http://www.nwosurvivalguide.com/Chapter1.aspx

We can't wait for everyone to go through the stages of waking up.  Please visit these websites and wake up quickly so we can stop them.

Brian Fredericksen
Brian Fredericksen

There is a significant factual error in this article the statement "More than half of managed U.S. honeybee colonies have disappeared in the past ten years."

Here is link to USDA data of the number of honeybee colonies in the USA which is from voluntary phone surveys of US beekeepers done each year. I happen to know about this since I'm a full time beekeeper and participate in the survey.

http://blogs-images.forbes.com/jonentine/files/2014/05/honeybees.png

I would expect more accurate reporting from National Geographic. 

CLINTON A.
CLINTON A.

Check Sam Droege out on Flickr. His photos are incredible!


Alec Sevins
Alec Sevins

Just like AGW, here's another problem that meek little humans (7 billion and growing) can't possibly be causing. The Creationist Right tells us it's "arrogant" to blame people for damaging big ol' planet Earth, since Gawd is the only one to decide that.

charly case
charly case

@Bob Metz  That's wonderful you have bees.  Where do you live?  I remember as a child, there was a bee on every clover flower in the field - as of today, I haven't seen a honey bee in months, let alone multiple bees. 

charly case
charly case

@Paul Cherubini  You must work for Bayer Cropscience.  Honey bees are indeed dying off around the world.  And countries have been banning neonicotinoids for years because of it.  In April 2013 EU member states voted for a continent-wide suspension of neonicotinoid pesticides for the very reason of bee die-offs.  France banned Imidacloprid back in 2000 for use on corn and sunflowers after reporting large losses of bees after exposure to it. The seeds are coated  with the neonicotinoid before planting so when the flowers bloomed, the nectar and pollen itself contained the pesticide.  Not only that, the poison remains in the soil for a number of years after use, so whatever is planted there continues to absorb the pesticides as well.   

Nancy Brill
Nancy Brill

I study bees and you, Sir, are mistaken.

Beatriz Moisset
Beatriz Moisset

Current beekeeping practices are just as bad as pesticides. Migration and artificial feeding are highly stressful. Migration also contributes to spreading varroa mites and a number of other pathogens. We have to look at the entire picture.

This is part of the reason why we need to bring back the native pollinators. They did most of the work a hundred years ago. They still do more than they get credit for despite the neglect and abuse we subject them to.

As for Monsanto, it is the farmers who use the stuff. Farming practices should change. Why doesn't anybody talk about that?

Beatriz Moisset
Beatriz Moisset

Two thirds is pollination in England is done by bumble bees and other wild pollinators. Which bees do you see?

sam droege
sam droege

@Pratik Datta Ah, I just looked up that lovely movie.  An indeed it is a Jew's harp being played of the Indian variety.  I think many are called Murchunga's, all are hand made, but depending on who built the harp they can vary from awesome to terrible...I think most are untuned...the Black fire set I have is tuned and thus useful as back up accompaniment.

sam droege
sam droege

@Pratik Datta Sam Droege here....that is a Jew's Harp, Trump, Jaw Harp, or mouth harp depending on what part of the country you are from.  The one I am playing is a Black Fire hand forged one from Hungary...in general the ones you but in music stores are no really playable....sam

Paul Cherubini
Paul Cherubini

@CLINTON A. remember you tax dollars are paying for the entertainment Sam Droege is providing the public.  USGS = fleecing of the taxpayers

David A.Carlson
David A.Carlson

@Alec Sevins If honeybee workers are made incompetent to travel back to their hive by imidacloprid neo-nicotinoids pesticides,  why would anyone think that orchard bees or any other bee species will not be affected? 


This looks like a horrible mess to me. An entomologist faculty friend told me he thinks feeding high fructose corn syrup to over-wintering bees was a problem. Then I recently found an article that claimed several solvent-type compounds are found in processed corn syrup, that could be toxic to bees. Maybe its not just throat mites?

Brian Fredericksen
Brian Fredericksen

Yah right And 60% of the entire Canadian honey crop is made from GMO neonic treated Canola with no reports of any bee problems in the Prairie Provinces.

That's real life not some fantasy or speculation

Brian Fredericksen
Brian Fredericksen

There is nothing conflicting about the data I posted. Journalists and many environmental organizations choose maximum impact with distorted data. It it what it is we have a stable onumber of hives in mid season or summer in the USA and that's just a fact Sasha.

Vincent Vizachero
Vincent Vizachero

@Brian Fredericksen The conflict comes from the fact that other researchers, using different methods, have arrived at estimates that differ from the one you posted.  That doesn't make your data wrong, but it does suggest there are professional differences.

David A.Carlson
David A.Carlson

I hope Dr. Droege can check the literature and find my papers on identification of various European, African and africanized honeybees by fingerprinting their hydrocarbon waxes using chemical analysis.   A number of honeybee species were identified by using gas chromatography- mass spec. on individual specimens. This was before DNA was possible, and it is all published.  I'll bet it would work on these bees too.

Brian Fredericksen
Brian Fredericksen

Since the honeybees in question are managed we don't need estimates which are neccessary for wild pollinators which is the focus of this article. The numbers are clear and represent the number of hives beekeepers have in midsummer. People fail to realize even managed honeybee populations ebb and flow with weather patterns and so some losses are natural. Most honeybee articles keep repeating the false claims they are in steep decline and that's just not true based on USDA and industry data. Like what I'm a beekeeper for 20 years make my living and payroll and I'm unclear on the status of honeybee Colonies in USA, ya right and the rest of you do what for a living?

Brian Fredericksen
Brian Fredericksen

I'm sorry Sir but commercial beekeepers get a courteous phone call from an older lady every spring asking how many colonies we have this season. These numbers reflect the number of hives we have in the USA managed by professional beekeepers. You can see from the graph it's a fluctuating number with normal variations no fancy statistics. These numbers could be cross referenced with states that keep colony counts. The data is clear my friend. Why are most of you so insistent otherwise but have no data to support an alternative number or trend?

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