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Learning to see the variety of bees in our region

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Dmitry Grigoriev / dxfoto.ru
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CC BY 2.0

Recently, my agent, Scott Boras, renegotiated my Bird Report contract with CAI. In addition to guaranteed 7 figure salary and performance bonuses, I am now able to talk about insects whenever I want. Lately, this means native bees, which, given their keystone role in most plant communities and concern about declining populations, are having a moment. Plus, bees have more in common with birds than you might think.

Both fly of course, and birds and bees can both be brightly colored and can be attracted to your yard with the right plantings. Both include common generalists – think American Robins and Eastern Bumblebees – as well as rare specialists. Both include non-native invasive species from Europe and Asia – think honeybees and House Sparrows. Both have brood parasites – species that lay their eggs in the nests of others. And both can be reported to global citizen science projects via apps and websites with brand new, jaw-dropping automatic identification capabilities, like eBird and iNaturalist.

In Massachusetts we have around 470 species of bees, and at least 220 on the Cape and Islands. These include the non-native domesticated honeybee everyone knows, and the familiar and fuzzy bumblebees, but that covers less than ten. So who are the rest? The average native bee is smaller than a honeybee, often much smaller. They don’t really sting because they’re not social – there is no hive, just a single female making a nest for her offspring that she provisions with pollen and nectar. The nest is usually in the ground or in dead wood. Sometimes the females only use pollen from certain plants, in the same way that Monarch butterflies only lay eggs on various species of milkweeds – these are called pollen specialists.

Even just ten years ago, getting into bee identification would have been all but impossible for the average person, even a decent naturalist – it was just too technical. The difference now is that there is a growing body of books about native bees to help you figure them out, plus the aforementioned apps that help you identify things. The automatic identification part of iNaturalist can get you to family or genus level from your photos, then someone who is hopefully an expert weighs in and can tell you exactly what species it is – iNaturalist is a global community of naturalists crowd sourcing identifications.

Once you get comfortable with some of the groups, you can actually contribute something to our collective knowledge of native bees. Just yesterday, I noticed an all-black bee collecting pollen from my Swamp Azalea - this is the sweet scented, white flowered shrub of swamps around here, our only native rhododendron on the Cape, and one of my favorite plants. I’d never noticed much bee activity on it, so I took notice of this one, and quickly saw it was a miner bee in the genus Andrena, an abundant group of ground-nesting bees with distinctive fuzzy lines just inside each eye. A bit of Googling and I realized this was a rare pollen specialist, the Azalea Mining Bee. I quickly reported it on iNaturalist, where it stands as the only record for the Cape and Islands.

This gets at a few of the things I love about this new hobby. As an ecologist and naturalist, I get excited about the intricate interrelationships between living things. I also love native plants, and gardening. So finding a rare bee, a pollen specialist, here because it is using a plant I added to my yard to feed its larvae, gives me a real buzz, as it were. (You knew it was coming). As a birder, I love finding and identifying something rare, then sharing my sighting with a larger community. It ticks all the boxes, as they say.

To get started, I’d recommend taking some phone videos of foraging bumblebees, then go frame by frame and practice identifying the three common species by the pattern of black and yellow on the abdomen. Maybe then start noticing distinctively colored, common species among the legions of smaller native bees, like the shiny, metallic green Striped Sweat Bee, Agapostemon virescens. Keep an eye out for leaf-cutter bees - common, stout little bees who carry pollen in a distinctive way, on the underside of the abdomen instead of the legs.

That should do it for now. From now on, just remember where to go when you’re ready to have birds and the bees explained – right here on the CAI Bird Report.

Mark Faherty writes the Weekly Bird Report.