Scientists say one in every three foods we eat is in some way linked with bees. Aside from making honey, this tiny insect is responsible for pollinating a wide range of fruits and vegetables. New research led by Michigan State University has led to the first complete record of every known bee species in the state.
I was traipsing through a Michigan forest one morning in June when a tiny traveler buzzed by for a close encounter.
I couldn’t tell you what type of bee it was that had mistaken my metal mic for some kind of steampunk sunflower. But I’m pretty sure it was looking for a snack...and that’s really what bees are doing when they pollinate a flower.
“The bees are somewhat tricked into doing that,” says Michigan State University professor of entomology Dr. Rufus Isaacs. “They’re collecting the pollen, and a little bit of it drops off or gets dusted off by the plant. So, the plants are getting fertilization and the bees are getting food.”
No doubt Isaacs would have identified my fly-by bee. He and three other researchers have been recently completed an extensive census of every known bee species in Michigan.
One of his partners in the study is Dr. Jason Gibbs. He’s a professor at the University of Manitoba who did his graduate work at MSU.
“When I came to Michigan a few years ago, I realized that no one had ever done this before,” says Gibbs. “It was a state where there’s a lot of pollination-dependent crops; you have blueberries, you have cherries that depend on bees. But no one had ever actually documented how many bees were actually present.”
There were estimates, though. Past studies put the total number of Michigan bee species to around 420. Combing through old records, gathering bees in the field and even blitzing through Sleeping Bear Dunes on a quick 24-hour count, Gibbs and his team found a few more.
“We got the list up to about 465, which is a pretty big increase,” he says. “So there’s almost 40 species that no one had ever actually documented for the state that we were able to find.”
With this new list, entomologists in Michigan will have a better sense of which species are faring well and which are threatened. For example, honeybees – of which there’s several species – are dwindling across North America. Scientists aren’t sure what’s causing colony collapse disorder.
What is certain is that without honeybees, a huge array of foods – up to a third of the human diet – is at risk. That covers a lot – from cherries to cheeseburgers.
That’s right. Cattle graze on crops like alfalfa, which rely on bees for pollination.
The study also confirmed a previously undocumented bee species. Scientists first saw it 70 years ago, but it’s only now been classified.
That’s the contribution of study co-author Dr. Molly Rightmyer, who found the bee in Grand Rapids.
“These bees really are pretty amazing,” Rightmyer says. “They do not behave in the way that most people think of bees behaving; you know, going from flower to flower and collecting pollen.”
This bee is a parasite, with huge jaws that enable it to eat other bees competing for food.
If that may sound a bit scary, ponder instead this creature’s gentler human namesake.
Triepeolous Elisea is named for Rightmyer’s two-year-old daughter, Elise.
“When you find something new, it’s hard not to get excited and want to honor somebody that you care about,” she adds.
Michigan’s bees are hunkered down this winter. But next spring, MSU will use its new data to build onto an old project. Researchers are planning to go back to some well-documented habitats first recorded decades ago to see how well various species are thriving.
The Michigan bee census isn’t the last word in the field, but instead a new reference guide. Now, scientists hope it will get more amateur entomologists buzzing over the dream of making their own discoveries.