Bee Curious

The short story is that UCO’s Provost John Barthell, Ph.D., has had the honor of having a species of bee named in his honor, the orchid bee Eufriesea barthelli. And while the obvious connection is Barthell’s extensive work in bee research worldwide, the story of how a new bee species like E. barthelli comes to be is more like a scientific mystery novel.

For E. barthelli — a beautiful species with a coloring of brilliant blues, greens and purples — its path to being named began in the summer of 2010. That’s when the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Pollinating Insects Research Unit was assisting Carlsbad Caverns National Park, in southeastern New Mexico, with an inventory of its bees. Field technician J. D. Herndon was walking through Ponderosa pines in a higher elevation of the park when he saw a brilliantly colored bee land on a nearby thistle. Thinking it unusual, he captured it. Herndon then contacted Terry L. Griswold, Ph.D., a world-renowned research entomologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture who was working on the Carlsbad project. Griswold, whose offices are on the campus of Utah State University, also is a curator of the U.S. National Pollinating Insects Collection, a worldwide assembly of more than a million specimens.

“He told me he thought it was an orchid bee,” Griswold remembered in a recent telephone interview, describing when the specimen arrived in his office. “When they got it out, I knew. It was exciting to see, knowing that genus was not known to be in the U.S.”

Not long afterward, Griswold sent a technician from his lab down to assist with collecting. That’s when a second orchid bee was discovered in the Guadalupe Mountains of west Texas, just across the New Mexico border.

Griswold became interested in field biology as a teenager, spending time with his father, who at the time was working to become an accredited high school biology teacher. In 1979, as a graduate student at Utah State, Griswold knew it was his career path. He doesn’t count the number of bee species he has discovered, instead the number of genera — kind of like not counting the number of tables set, but rather the number of banquets planned.

Nonetheless, Griswold was excited about these two orchid bees. He began trying to determine who they were, what was their name.

Coloring was noted — not just overall, but on various parts, including the tiny hairs on bees that can be colored differently than the attached body part. Measurements were taken of their overall size, as well as the size and shape of their various body parts — including their tongues, which proved helpful in solving Griswold’s big question.

At this point, some may wonder how long a bee’s tongue could possibly be.

“They’re really long in this group,” Griswold said. “They can be as long as their bodies. When flying, the tongue lies under the body of the bee with a flap that covers it. When they come to a flower, it’s essentially a straw.”

One puzzling feature was the condition of the two bees’ wings, which were like new. That led initially to the conclusion that they were from close by, maybe part of a larger population in the area. Worn wings would have indicated the likelihood they were caught in a storm and blown to the area. Species distribution maps using mathematical models, however, later showed that the area where they were found was not conducive in habitat, and it was more likely the bees were transported to the area. This is something that can happen inadvertently when goods, especially things like logs and produce, are shipped from one area to another.

Griswold’s detailed bee analysis was run through a series of “keys,” binary questions with answers that can lead the researcher down a path to see if there is a match to a known species.

Bingo. Griswold concluded they were orchid bees of the genus Eufriesea of the group coerulescens, and most likely E. coerulescens, a rare species from Mexico.

However, when he started comparing the anatomy of the two bees to other specimens of E. coerulescens, “they didn’t really look like what we had here. I decided we needed to make sure.”

So, about three years ago, he contacted a colleague at the University of Kansas, Victor Gonzalez, Ph.D., also a research entomologist, who has worked on projects with Griswold and Barthell.

Gonzalez teaches and works with the university’s Snow Entomological Collection, which includes about a half-million bee specimens. Gonzalez, originally from Colombia, spends his breaks and summers doing bee research.

To solve the mystery of the two U.S. bees, Gonzalez and Griswold began gathering specimens of E. coerulescens from their professional collections as well as from others around the world. The goal was to find something that matched their two mystery bees. Studies were made of bees collected as early as the 1800s, some badly damaged or having been poorly repaired, as the case of one bee that had the legs of another type of bee glued to its body.

In the end, the men found more than they expected.

“When you start down a path, you don’t know where it is going to take you,” Griswold said, the voice of years of experience.

The researchers did find that the two bees were in fact the orchid bee E. coerulescens. This was confirmed by their anatomical studies and by examining the first specimen of E. coerulescens, which was collected in the 1800s in Mexico and located in the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, France.

However, in searching through all the different specimens, Gonzalez also found three bees filed with E. coerulescens that did not actually match the bees in that species.

Much more research confirmed that in addition to identifying the two mystery bees, he also had discovered three new species of bees.

The discoveries are amazing. Then they’re not.

There are about 20,000 species of bees in the world, Gonzalez said. In the U.S., there are about 3,500 species. Some estimate, however, that there may be 500 more species that have not been named.

“It’s hard to know how much we don’t know,” Griswold said. “There’s easily a hundred undescribed specimens in our collection here. No one has the time to do it. There are just so few of us who do this kind of work.” (Gonzalez estimates that in North America, there are no more than 10 people “actively working on discovering and documenting bee diversity as we do.”)

Funding for such bee research just isn’t there, Griswold said, acknowledging “medical research is probably more important.”

“But we do serve a critical function. You need to know a name for what you’re working with so it has meaning,” Griswold said.

Barthell and Gonzalez said as much in their own interviews.

“We may be losing some bee species that we don’t even know about,” Barthell said.

Gonzalez said, “Every time you name something, people now know it and promote the study of it.”

Gonzalez was the one who named the three new species. Their names became official with the publishing of a 47-page article in April in the Journal of Hymenoptera. (Hymenoptera is a large order of insects — more than 150,000 living and about 2,000 extinct — covering sawflies, wasps, ants and bees.)

So, after seven years of research, the paper confirmed the identification of the two mystery bees, plus the identification of the three new species. Both Gonzalez and Griswold were listed as authors, along with University of Kansas graduate student Marianna Simões.

While scientific rules require species be named in Latin, Gonzalez found ways to honor three people who have meaning to him. The one new species, E. oliveri, is named for his son, Oliver, now age two-and-a-half. The other two were named for colleagues he admires and wanted to honor — E. engeli named for professor Michael Engel, Ph.D., of the University of Kansas, and E. barthelli, named for Barthell. (Note: the word barthelli rhymes with the word why.)

While researching the two mystery bees, Gonzalez found an E. barthelli in a collection at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, founded in 1551. The specimen E. barthelli was collected in 1995, although Gonzalez identified another E. barthelli specimen housed in the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, France, that was collected in 1900.

Gonzalez explained his reasoning in naming the species for Barthell: “In my opinion, the role he has played in securing grants for research involving undergraduate students has been key. He cares about student development and well-being.”

And he cares about bees, knowing that 98 percent of everything humans eat comes from other parts of the world where bees are needed to pollinate and diversify weed species.

Barthell’s grants from the National Science Foundation, for research in Greece and Turkey, are now in their twelfth year with two more years to go. “I set it up with the idea that the problem (of bee survival rates) is not local, but global,” Barthell said. “And that it’s critical for students to understand the importance of the origin of a species, and how it is that they spread and what that does.”

In the future, Barthell said, he hopes to spend time in the tropical forests of Central Mexico learning more about a new species that has caught his attention, called E. barthelli.

Written by: Gypsy Hogan, University of Central Oklahoma

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