I had the great honor to be invited to the Jepson Herbarium native bee workshop hosted by the Urban bee lab at UC Berkeley. The event took place at the UC Hastings reserve nested deep in Carmel Valley. The workshop had attendance from all over the United States, and even someone from Australia and New Zealand. Most people were entomology researchers, and some museum docents.
The setting was not only magnificent to enjoy but it is also one of the areas with the highest diversity of native bees. About 400 different species can be found there. Keep in mind that there is an estimated 20,000 different species of bees in the world. California has about 1600. Identifying this bees is no easy task, I learned. But it is important work to keep track of the health of the species.
The workshop focused on learning to identify native bees and looking at which bees are attracted to which plants. This is helpful to understand what plants to use to support pollination in agriculture and healthy bee diversity. Our time there included lots of lectures about bee identification and the different research that the legendary Dr. Robbin Thorp
, Dr. Frankie
, Jamie and Sara are doing at the UCB bee lab. There was also a lecture on how to photograph bees up close by Rollin Coville. I was especially excited about that lecture because it gave me a good excuse to buy a macro lens that I have been dreaming about for years. We spend a lot of time in the lab looking at bees under the microscope but also a lot of time in the field observing and collecting bees.
It became very apparent to me that this group of bee entomologist had low tolerance for anything non scientific. I asked about the healing properties of native bee venom compared with honey bees and got a what-are-you-talking-about-there-is-no-scientific-proof-for that response. So, for the most part, I kept my spiritual connection to the bees to myself. But I did share some of my apiteraphy success experiences and some people were interested on hearing my “non-scientific” bee stories.
During out five day workshop, we were guided through the scientific process that they have developed to asses the population of native bees. We placed traps with with soapy water on different color plates in the field at 8′ intervals, and came back to collect the bees after 4 hours.
We also collected bees with nets in specific plants. One of the research that they are doing is bee/plant relationship, looking at which bees are attracted to which plants.
We then took those bees back to the lab, most of them were already dead but to be sure they were placed in jars with ethyl acetate/nail polish remover. We then placed them in a tea ball and dried them up with a hair drier to get their hair and wings all fluffy again. high tech!
Then, the hardest part, pinning the bees. We had to careful insert a pin in the abdomen of the bees and place them with the wings, legs, antenna, etc. extended so they can dry up like that and be identified.
We specified which bees were found at which plants and line them up so they can keep track. I gather all my bravery to do this work, in the name of science! This was hard enough for me and then one of the bees that I pinned started coming back to life and was moving on the pin. I was terrified. They took the bee away from me and put it on the freezer to make sure it died. They tried to convince me that since bees have no brains they feel no pain. Nice try! I was done pinning bees. There was no sharing circle or any other outlet to express my feelings and emotions with this group of scientist so I just went on a walk and waited outside until happy hour. I needed a drink!
However looking at the bees under the microscope is really fascinating!!! They are so incredibly beautiful and colorful. Native bees come in all colors, amazing metallic blues and greens, bright yellows, orange, black. They have iridescent wings that go from pink to purples to oranges. They have 3 third eyes! National Geographic did an amazing story called Intimate portrait of bees
that show some of this amazing bees up close. Looking at the bees under the microscope kind of reminded me of diving and being suspended in another reality seeing incredibly beautiful creatures. As I looked at them, I kept wondering how do we look to them through those big and tiny eyes.
Photography by Sam Droege, USGS
Out in the field we collected nectar from different flowers to measure the sucrose level, this gives us more information on why different bees are attracted to different flowers. We can also see how some flowers release all the nectar and pollen at once while others do it at intervals throughout the day or at a certain day after opening.
The flowers get covered with a paper bag early in the day so the bees can not take the nectar. We then remove flower petals gently to reveal nectar at the base of the flowers and we collect the nectar from the flower using a microcapillary pipette. The nectar is then released onto the prismatic surface of a pocket refractometer and with that we get the sucrose results. It was not as easy as it sounds….
Turns out pollination is not just bees going from flower, it is a lot more complicated than that. Pollination is a multifaceted, complex relationship between an enormous diversity of plants and animals. And not all bee pollination happens in the same way, some bees carry pollen on their legs, soma carry it on their bellies, and some bees vibrate as they approach the flowers to release the pollen.
The Clarkia unguiculata is one of such flowers. It has eight long stamens, the outer four of which have large red anthers. The stigma protrudes from the flower and can be quite large. It also moves as the days progress as you can see on the picture above. On the first day the stigma is low but by the second day the stigma curves up. A specific type of native bee is attracted to this flower, it lands on the flower and it vibrates onto the stigma, the vibration releases the pollen from the four outer anthers. Once the pollen gets released other bees, such as this bumble bee can collect it and move it around. There it was, in front of us, the oldest love affair in the planet, pollination.
I realized that the beauty of this phenomena, weather we see it trough a scientific or a spiritual lens, is our
ability to witness the magic of it. Life happening, transforming, unfolding in front of our eyes.
In deep gratitude to the Berkeley bee lab team for inviting me to this exciting week filled with bees, science and magic! With honey in my heart!
“Life without wonder is not worth living.”
― Abraham Joshua Heschel