The 132 species of the Orchid Bee genus Euglossa glint in almost all the colors of the rainbow. The gaudiest of bees, it zips through the tropical jungles of the Western Hemisphere in polished, metallic glory. Matching the showiness of these bees, are the complex and beautiful forms of orchids that have evolved to entice visits by the males. Males come to these plants not to collect pollen or nectar, but to gather what amounts to chemical perfumes. These aromatic compounds are stored in the hind legs of males and are used during the courtship of females. The orchid, in turn, glues its twin sacks, which are filled with pollen grains, onto the backs of these bees. The bees then transport them to the next orchid, where the placement, size, and shape of these orchid pollinia are designed to transfer the pollen to the stigma of the recipient orchid, effecting pollination. Collected by Sam Droege in Guyana | Photo by Sam Droege
If you read science news, you’ve probably heard a lot about the plight of the honey bee. These pollinators are responsible for producing a huge portion of the fruits and vegetables that we eat, including apples, berries, almonds, and broccoli. The species is mysteriously on the decline in the U.S. and Europe, which could spell trouble in our food future.
But honey bees aren’t the only bees out there. Earth is home to some 20,000 named species of bees, and there may be another 20,000 waiting to be discovered and named. We don’t know much about these species, what they’re like, or how they’re faring in the “global pollinator crisis.” In a new book, biologists Sam Droege and Laurence Packer shine a spotlight on some of that incredible bee diversity–for example, did you know that some bees have a tongue longer than their bodies, or that others drink sweat?–while also highlighting our shortage of knowledge about these important species. And they do it all through amazingly vivid images, as you can see in the gallery above.
The book’s hundreds of photographs were all snapped with off-the-shelf camera parts and a bit of ingenuity. When zooming in on a small insect, usually the increased magnification means that only a tiny part of the bee will be in focus. To overcome that, Droege programmed a microprocessor to move the camera, taking the same shot from multiple, slightly different distances that give slightly different foci. Then a computer program stitches the photos together, creating images with incredible depth of field.
In addition to the book’s eye-capturing photos and interesting bee trivia, the captions are peppered with anecdotes–including several bee stings and a visit to the White House lawn–that make it a surprisingly fun read.
Bees: An Up-Close Look At Pollinators Around The World goes on sale July 7.
Black-Winged Cuckoo Orchid Bee (Exaerete frontalis)
In addition to being spectacularly arrayed in shades of polished metallic green, this species is unusual in that it makes no nest of its own. Rather, the female of this bee opens up recent nests of other, equally large, orchid bees in the American tropics, kills or removes the egg of the host bee, and places her egg in the nest. Then, she re-seals the nesting chamber and flies off to seek other nests to parasitize.
The male is similar to other male orchid bees in that it gathers scents from orchid flowers and other objects in the canopy and interior of New World jungles. As the male gathers these aromatic compounds, they are transferred to slits in its hind legs where, presumably, they are used to attract females, though little is actually known about the role these compounds play in courtship and mating.
Australian Minute Baldy (Brachyhesma species)
Minute bees are just that—minute. Some are as small as 2 millimeters in length, and all have a wan, yellow-base color to the integument, or skin, of their exoskeleton. They are known to feed on the many species of plants in the Myrtle family in Australia, especially from eucalyptus where hundreds of individuals can be obtained with a sweep net and an extremely long handle. These bees are a good example of the evolutionary radiation that occurred in the family Colletidae in Australia, with bees ranging much larger than a honeybee down to less than 2 millimeters.
Neon Cuckoo (Thyreus species)
The Neon Cuckoo presented here was captured in Ethiopia by an unknown collector in the 1970s. The specimen sample remains in the Smithsonian Natural History Museum’s drawer of unidentified Neon Cuckoo bees, waiting for the decade, or century, when someone will develop the skills to become an expert on the genus. Taxonomy is a slow business, but when done correctly, it can last forever.
On-And-Off Bee (Paracolletes species)
This species is unusually sexually dimorphic in color: The males are quite bright, as can be seen here, whereas the females are what might be called the standard option for bee coloration—brownish gray on the head and thorax, and a black abdomen with white, transverse hair bands. They are very fast flying bees. A series of males were caught as they flew rapidly among the beautiful flowers of Grevillea in western Australia. These flowers contain so much nectar that after a couple of attempts the net became sticky. The males were searching for the much less common females. Indeed, only two females were caught, and, to the embarrassment of the researcher, one was let go after it stung him.
Vectored Sputnik (Pachyanthidium species)
“Pachy” is Latin for broad, and is an entirely suitable prefix to the scientific name of the Vectored Sputnik. This compact, small stub of a bee is almost as broad as it is long. As is sadly so often the case, not much is known about the eighteen different Sputnik species. However, they are most often found south of the Sahara in Africa. Their nests are similar to those found in sister taxa; they comprise a single cell, housing pollen and nectar formed from resin intermixed with plant fibers. The nests are planted on the exterior surface of a cavity or rock face.
Atlas Morning Glory Bee (Ancyloscelis ursinus)
This species nests in banks of loose soil. Most of the twenty or so species in the genus Ancyloscelis collect pollen and nectar almost exclusively from morning glories. The pollen and nectar are taken underground, where they are mixed together to make a pollen ball within small brood cells. A single egg is laid in each cell, then the entrance is closed. In order to reach the pollen and, in particular, the nectar, which is found in the deep corollas of morning glories, these species have evolved very long tongues. A few members of this genus have also adapted their long tongues to extract pollen from aquatic pickerelweed blooms. This has required the evolution of small hooks on the tip of their tongues to remove the exceptionally hidden pollen of pickerelweed flowers. This group occurs from southwestern portions of the United States, through Mexico and Central America, and down to Argentina. As you can see from the picture, the males are unusual in that they have greatly enlarged femurs. How exactly these are used is currently unclear, but presumably the females prefer a “Mr. Atlas” morphology to that of a svelte weakling.
Orchid Bee (Euglossa species)
The 132 species of the Orchid Bee genus Euglossa glint in almost all the colors of the rainbow. The gaudiest of bees, it zips through the tropical jungles of the Western Hemisphere in polished, metallic glory. Matching the showiness of these bees, are the complex and beautiful forms of orchids that have evolved to entice visits by the males. Males come to these plants not to collect pollen or nectar, but to gather what amounts to chemical perfumes. These aromatic compounds are stored in the hind legs of males and are used during the courtship of females. The orchid, in turn, glues its twin sacks, which are filled with pollen grains, onto the backs of these bees. The bees then transport them to the next orchid, where the placement, size, and shape of these orchid pollinia are designed to transfer the pollen to the stigma of the recipient orchid, effecting pollination.
Tricolored Morning Forked-Tongue (Caupolicana gaullei)
Big, fast, and a challenge to capture, little is known about the Tricolored Morning Forked-Tongue, but many of its relatives forage early in the morning. High-speed foraging by females may be required to harvest the available pollen as quickly as possible before light and competition with other early risers depletes the flower’s stores. The picture above nicely illustrates the split tongue of the Tricolored Morning bee. While the apex of the tongue being concave is characteristic of the entire family (the Colletidae), only one subgroup has the tongue so strongly bisected. This tongue is used to apply glandular secretions to the inner wall of the nest. This makes the brood cells waterproof, as these bees make a more soupy food store for their offspring than most other bees.
Pendant Long-Horn (Trichocerapis mirabilis)
Nature is wonderful in the way it plays with evolution to create solutions to problems we don’t even know exist. There are six species in this small genus of moderate-size bees that are found in central South America. The antennae of the male Pendant Long-Horn have been greatly modified in five of them—the apical segments narrow and elongate and are fringed with hairs, with the ultimate segment expanded into a darkened disk. There are no known reasons for these modifications. Almost certainly it has something to do with finding or luring the opposite sex. Males act solely as sperm donors and never participate in nest building or provisioning.
Long-Nosed Sandlover (Geodiscelis longiceps)
Nectar dries quickly in the Atacama Desert of Chile, the driest desert in the world. Consequently, many plants hide their nectar in deep pockets or nectaries inside of flowers. To access these nectaries, visiting bees need long tongues and, in some instances, a very long head. This wee species was first discovered in 2004 at the very edge of the absolute rainless portions of the Atacama in northern Chile. Here it feeds on flowers from crinklemat plants (Tiquilia).
Unknown Cute Bee (Mourecotelles species)
What an attractive bee! Unfortunately, we know very little about this specimen—the aptly named Unknown Cute Bee—found in the western temperate regions of South America. It belongs to a little-studied group and most of the work that has been done comes from museums where twenty-two species have been described from various collections. There is one note that a few nests were found in wooden-trap nests that mimic naturally occurring beetle holes or cavities in plant stems—whether that holds true for all species is unknown.
Sichel’s Crenulated Bee (Dinagapostemon sicheli)
It may appear that this is not a great looking specimen, but seeing as it was collected in 1867, it really is remarkably well preserved—far better than you or I would be almost 150 years after death! This degree of preservation is generally the case with insects; as long as the specimen is treated well and kept in a dry, climate-controlled environment, it will last nearly indefinitely. This species was named after its collector and was deposited in the National Museum of Natural History in Paris many years ago. What’s unique here is the undulating or crenulated nature of the antennae in males. Despite their dramatic appearance, these bees are rarely collected. Several species were described from single male specimens, the rest from just a handful of specimens.
Pure Augochlora (Augochlora pura)
When we think about bees we usually picture them visiting flowers in our gardens and fields, but bees also live in the woods. For example, some of the world’s tallest trees have large flowers and are dependent on bees for pollination. In eastern North America, spring deciduous forests are rich in bees before trees produce their leaves. One of the most common bees found there is the Pure Augochlora. Unlike most other bee species, this bee does not nest in the ground or in old beetle holes, but in the rotting wood of logs, where they also overwinter. The name “Augochlora” means “gold green,” but this species is mostly pure green, with occasional bluish reflections. Its close relatives come in all shades and combinations: some are black with orange metallic heads; others are bright blue, gold, or green; and still others have delightful combinations of blues and pinks—all reflecting metallic, like a thin film of oil on water.
Black-Bottomed Osmia (Osmia atriventris)
Blue is not a color normally associated with bees, but in the genus Osmia, blues and azures are the norm. This is one of a large number of species that prefers to collect blueberry pollen as food for its offspring. Unlike honeybees, which are poor pollinators of blueberry crops, this bee and other native blueberry lovers, hold the primary-pollination responsibility for putting blueberries on your table.
Blue Orchard Bee (Osmia lignaria)
Blue Orchard Bees are one of the wild bees that are just now beginning to be used to augment, or even replace, pollination by honeybees in North American fruit orchards. Each female visits an average of 60,000 flowers per season, making them efficient and welcome pollinators in orchards. Because fruit trees are in bloom for only short periods of time, managed orchard bees do not easily build up sustainable populations. Planting lupines and other native flowers around the orchard provides the bees with additional sources of food before and after the bloom is complete, resulting in more offspring and larger population sizes.