Nov. 18, 2011 at 6:57 PM ET
One researcher has identified 11 new species of sweat bees, including a bug named in honor of Gotham City — but in a sense, these bees aren't new at all. They've probably been right under our noses all this time.
The new identifications were made by Cornell entomologist Jason Gibbs by checking dead-bee collections and conducting DNA tests. Species names and descriptions were published last month in the journal Zootaxa as part of a reshuffling of the family tree for 97 species of sweat bees. Gibbs said there may be thousands of bee species yet to be identified.
"This highlights the need for additional studies of our major pollinators," and not just honeybees, he told me.
One bee may look like another, but there can be subtle morphological and genetic differences that set them apart. If the bees are so dissimilar that they can't breed with each other, they're considered separate species. Mitochondrial DNA tests provide a reliable way to map out species relationships by revealing how long ago particular strains of creatures diverged. "These bees are morphologically and genetically distinct enough that you can say with confidence that they are their own species," Gibbs explained in a Cornell Chronicle interview.
Sweat bees are so named because they get some of their sustenance from licking the sweat off our skin. They nest in the ground or in tree cavities. Four of the species that Gibbs identified are "cuckoo bees," which have lost the ability to build their own nests and collect pollen. These species lay their eggs in the nests of other bees, which end up raising the invaders' progeny. That's the same sort of trick cuckoos pull in the bird world. (Gibbs named one of the cuckoo-bee species Lasioglossum izawsum, which is awesome.)
Four of the species were found in the New York City area, including a specimen that was collected at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden in 2009. That species was named Lasioglossum gotham, which led The New York Times to declare that the Big Apple "has a bee to call its own." Sure, Gotham may be one of New York's nicknames, but if you want to think of L. gotham as the "Batman bee" instead, no one's going to stop you.
The species names for the nine other newly identified strains are arantium, ascheri, batya, curculum, furunculum, georgeickworti, katherineae, rozeni and trigeminum. Some of these labels echo the names of other bee researchers: Cornell's George Eickwort, for example, or John Ascher and Jerome Rozen of the American Museum of Natural History. It was Ascher who found L. gotham and passed it along to Gibbs for identification. The Times reported that L. katherineae was identified by analyzing a dead bee that had been sitting in a drawer at the museum since 1903.
The fact that the list of bee species is a little longer than it used to be doesn't mean that the widely publicized crisis besetting the bees is over. Honeybees have been hard-hit by a mysterious phenomenon known as colony collapse disorder, which experts suspect is caused by a combination of mites, parasites, viruses and pesticides. Bumblebees are having problems, too.
"This discovery doesn't counter the idea that bees are declining," Gibbs told me. "What it points out is that there are a lot of species we don't enough about to say whether they're at a stable level."
Identifying the wide variety of bee species just might be the first step toward identifying the factors that keep some populations healthy while others are put at risk. "Even though these bees were only recently described, we can go back to the collections by digitizing records, and start comparing modern abundances," Gibbs said.
More about the bees:
Gibbs' research was supported by the Canadian Barcode of Life Network through the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, Genome Canada, and the National Science Foundation. Gibbs was a researcher at York University in Toronto for a time while working on the study, which explains the Canadian connection.
Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter or following the Cosmic Log Google+ page. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.