Wednesday, July 25, 2018

The Littlest Roosters: Madame Beespeaker’s Oregon Adventure

Canadian bee scientist Lincoln Best looks for Oregonian bees in goldenrod

It all started with a t-shirt. It was blue, like the colour of a prairie sky in July. It was printed with silhouettes of different species of native bees on the front and the text: Oregon Bee Atlas. On the back was the shape of the state of Oregon with “bee enthusiast” written inside its borders. The t-shirt was a gift from Lincoln Best, a Canadian scientist who specializes in the study of the bees that are indigenous to the locations he surveys. I put that delightful t-shirt on and I didn’t take it off for four days. My husband joked that he might need to make an intervention. (Yes, I admit I might have even slept in it a night or two.)
There was something about that Oregon Atlas bee shirt that captured my imagination. Its magic powers tapped into my nine-year old nerdy self. It triggered that girl who used to go down to the slough to collect pond water and then look at the aquatic critters under my microscope. It got me remembering the joy of unlimited time to explore that natural curiosity of childhood. I started dreaming of ways I could take Lincoln’s bee ID course at the Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon. Before I knew it, I found myself staying up late and researching how to make the journey to Oregon by train. The economical ticket price was encouraging. I considered hawking my vintage dress collection to help pay for tuition. “You should come!” Lincoln e-mailed me. He was like that male mason bee that landed on my arm one blue morning when I opened my back door in Vancouver, British Columbia. I swear that cute critter looked me in the eye as if to say “C’mon girl, it’s time to go outside and play,” and then flew out into the garden. I asked myself if I should follow that bee all the way to Oregon. I consulted with my friend Heather, asking her if I should make the trip. “You should go”, she said. “These events are like water to you.”

The Oregon State University campus is beautified with its well-designed and maintained pollinator gardens
And so on a sweet Oregon morning I found myself in the front seat of a well-used van with the windows rolled down, Fleetwood Mack playing on the stereo and two Canadian bee scientists singing along to the song “Second Hand News.” Lincoln was driving and Sarah Johnson, a bumblebee conservationist with a wicked sense of dark humor was riding in the back seat. “You kids and your Mumford Brothers music—tsk tsk,” I said in my best 1950’s mom tone of voice. “I hope you’re joking, Sarah said. That’s Fleetwood Mac.” Those millennial science swots were grooving to the music of my teens. Their sense of adventure was rubbing off on me and giving me a gentle buzz. I knew I’d made the right decision. The tension from my complicated working life back home in Vancouver was beginning to melt. I was on a science holiday in a beautiful state with more bee species than we have in all of Canada. This is the stuff a nerdy girl’s dreams are made of.

Before Linc and Sarah went into the Botany building to set up the class, Linc showed me some roosting long-horned male bees roosting in the pollinator garden in front of the entrance. I stooped down to peer at a cluster of furry critters clinging to the light brown stems of a plant gone to seed. And that’s when I fell in love with the bees of Oregon. There were about twenty to thirty bees huddled clinging to the dried stems and prickly seed heads of a plant known as wide-leaved avens (Geum macrophyllum). These were long-horned bees, with antennae that were almost as long as their bodies. I call them the jackalope bees, after that mythical prairie rabbit with the horns of antelope. They are very furry little bees with striped abdomens. One species was grey with grey eyes and another was strawberry blonde with green eyes. Some huddled together for warmth in small groups of two to four bees. Others slept solo, clinging to the stems with their tarsal claws, aka bee toes. Some used their mandibles or bee teeth to latch onto the plant. Two boys were facing each other cheek to cheek as if they’d fallen asleep kissing each other good night. I’d heard about these exclusive slumber parties, but never seen one before in real life. My heart was singing its deeply joyful bee lover’s song.

As the air warmed, each male started to wake up and perform his male ablutions, cleaning his antennae. These are important sensory organs that keep the bees alert and aware of their surroundings. They also redistribute antimicrobial chemicals and clean off any unwanted mites that try to hitchhike on their bodies. The sight of these bees grooming themselves and flying away one by one is simply enchanting, like something out of a feverish sunstroked dream.

The class was full of students eager to learn how to identify Oregon’s native bees. It was an eclectic, friendly bunch, ranging in experience from years working in entomology to seasoned honeybee keepers to retired professionals who wanted to dive back into their college level study of biology. The core of the group were here as professional and/or citizen scientists to help work on the Oregon Bee Atlas, an ambitious project that will culminate in the create of an online database of the state’s total bee species. I was here to meet fellow bee enthusiasts, the “beeple” as my friend Tamara calls them. I was also here to go deeper into that mysterious study of bee anatomy and taxonomy—that scientific and objective way of looking at bees that helps me deepen my connection with these pollinators on an aesthetic and spiritual level.

This is the scleritized genitalia of a male bumblebee that is long dead.
Here’s the thing: I hate using microscopes. I have some eye damage and a prairie squint that makes using a scope a form of self-inflicted punishment, usually culminating in migraine headaches for the duration of the taxonomy course. But something incredible happened. I looked at my first bumblebee specimen under the scope and I saw it perfectly clearly without straining myself or tying my neck into a mess of muscular tension knots. Someone who had used the scope before me had a setting matched perfectly to my specifications. It was a revelation. I spent the rest of the course looking at the diagnostic anatomical parts of bees without pain or duress, and in its place a growing pleasure in using the scope. I took the opportunity to draw what I was looking at with a pencil into a sketchbook. This was a way of using a “right brain” method instead of using the correct scientific method of determining genus, which is a series of “if this, then that” keys. Some day I’ll attempt the true scientific rigor of the dichotomous keys, but what the heck-- as an artist on holiday, I wanted to do things my way.

Bombus for Days! A sample from Lincoln Best's recent research in the Kootenays of British Columbia.

We started with Bombus, the big furry charismatic bumblebees that pollinate your tomatoes with their gift for buzz pollination. You’d think it would be easy to determine the species by the color of the fur coats and hats they wear, but you’d be wrong. There are many variations of bumblebee fashion, so you need to take a closer look at several anatomical details. And with male bees, that are even more variable in their sartorial manifestations, you need to look at their genitalia, aka the “beenis”. Sarah Johnson and I had taken Cory Sheffield’s bumblebee course in Regina in the winter and that’s where I had the privilege of performing my first genital extraction. (A proud declaration of this achievement of bee nerdery made my billet choke on his morning toast.) We were to pull the dude’s package out of a dead specimen, but I inquired if it was possible to chill a live bee to slow them down and examine it thusly so he could be released to share his bee junk for a while longer. Raucous laughter from the scientist in the room told me no, this was not a plausible solution and it made me the butt of a running joke for the rest of the course.

Getting the boys ready for Operation Beenis Extraction

Sarah was sent out to gather and dispatch a few male bumblebee specimens for us to examine. This was not an easy request, because the majority of Bombus in the pollinator garden were yellow-faced bumblebees (Bombus vosnesensky) and the males and females look very similar. The males have fluffier faces and larger eyes. They also lack corbiculae or pollen baskets on their hind legs. Sarah netted some bees and gave them some sleeping juice. Linc told her she’d better sort the one female she’d snagged by mistake. So Sarah got to work giving the bees a closer look, but she had actually aced the assignment--there was nary a corbicula in the bunch. Meanwhile Lincoln set up a male bee under the teaching scope, which is two microscopes hooked together in a clever way so the student can watch the teacher examine the genitalia. The bee that Lincoln showed me was not a live specimen, but it was still twitching. “We should make a video of this,” he exclaimed. “And you should do a David Attenborough style narration.”  We have fun in bee class.

Looking at the gushy bits of a beenis from a recently dispatched yellow-faced bumblebee

Lincoln grasped the bee firmly and deftly pulled out the boy parts. He’s only done this a few thousand times before. Experience counts for much when you’re studying bee taxonomy. It’s something you really only master after years of pulling out beenises and spending decades in the lab and the field. This is just the tip of the beeberg. I am so surprised at what I see, I find it a bit thrilling and disturbing. The bee’s penis is a soft white organ that slips through its harder scleritized parts. It was a striking resemblance to a human penis. It’s enough to make a woman with a penchant for male bees to blush and raise her eyebrows. I was gobsmacked. The vulnerability of that soft and gushy micro organ made me love boy bees even more than before. It’s a special kind of biophilia this love for the males of the bee world. I don’t think anyone has given in a name or pathologized it. Not yet anyway.

Every time we get a tea or lunch break, I am out in the garden watching the bees. The long-horned males are flying around, patrolling the plants where the females are drinking nectar and gathering pollen for their brood. These are mining bees that nest in the ground, sometimes quite close to their preferred food plants. The males are defensive, harassing the other insects that come to feed in their territory. As I photograph a swallowtail butterfly nectaring on purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) I watch her get dive-bombed again and again by the long-horned males. I did manage to snap one photo of a long-horned bee smacking a male Bombus on the back of its head. Thwack!

The males stop occasionally to groom and nectar on the plants they patrol. This is the best time to photograph them, because when they’re flying they are a blurr of grey fuzz. They prefer flowers in the aster family, which in the gardens here include coreopsis, and sneezweed (Helenium autumnale). I also saw them on milkweed (Asclepias), blaxing star (Liatris) and fireweed (Chamaenerion angustifolium).  By the time dusk rolls around they start to slow down and then head to the same patch they roosted the night before. When the boys roost on shrubs, people have observed male bees nesting on the same branch year after year. This is interesting since the males live a very short time in their flying cycle—4 to 6 weeks, so every year it’s a new generation of roosters.

Large-leaved avens (Geum macrophyllum)
One of my classmates told me she saw males slumbering on this species of plant in other sites on campus. I also saw them on this plant in Oak Meadows Park in Vancouver. There’s a huge patch of these plants in the park and I come home from there covered in the needle-like seeds and spread them all over the house to my husband’s chagrin. He finds them in our bed, which makes him grumble even more. “It’s like free acupuncture,” I tell him. “Saves lots of money. So healthy.”

I headed home on the Amtrak Cascades train and watched the sun set over the Pacific coast.  The waxing gibbous moon floating about the Pacific Ocean had a pink tinge. Families waved to the train from their bonfires and clambakes. I started to dream of a project where we share large-leaved avens seeds to help create roosting sites all the way from Vancouver down to Corvallis. So now I’m on a mission to gather some of these pointy seeds and give them to folks who want to grow this plant in their bee garden.  Stay tuned and let me know if you’d like to grow some roosting sites for the cutest boys. If you grow enough plants to attract long-horned bees, you might just have your own patch of little roosters to admire.

For more information on the Oregon Bee Atlas and the Oregon Bee Project, check out the awesome website.

To stay informed on upcoming classes by Lincoln Best, check out his website

I also highly recommend The PolliNation Podcast hosted by Andony Melathopoulos, especially as I'll be a guest on the show soon! (-;