Happy World Bee Day!

Did you know there are 20,000 species of bees in the world? And that 4,000 of those species are native to North America? In celebration of World Bee Day, we highlight some of the bees TPI members have studied across the United States and in Costa Rica.

Common eastern bumble bees (Bombus impatiens) are important pollinators of greenhouse tomatoes, blueberries, and pumpkins.
Photo: Genevieve Pugesek

Though the common eastern bumble bee is one of the more common bee species in the Northeastern US (as its name suggests), we still have a lot to learn! With help from Tufts undergrad and grad students, I am working to understand where queen eastern bumble beeshibernate. As it turns out, unlike most other species of bumble bees, these queen bees hibernate right next to the nest they were born in. So, if you are creating habitat for nesting bumble bees, you might be creating habitat for hibernating queens too! If you visit our pollinator gardens (while practicing safe social distancing) this spring, you’re likely to see these fuzzy bumble bees flying around.

Genevieve Pugesek, PhD Student, Tufts University

Yellow-faced bumble bees (Bombus vosnesenskii) pollinate many wild plants as well as crop plants such as tomatoes and berries.
Photos: Elizabeth Crone, Rachael Bonoan

For the past 5 years, I worked on this species in collaboration with Neal Williams (Assoc. Professor, University of California), Rosemary Malfi (now post-doc, UMass Amherst) and Natalie Kerr (now post-doc, Duke University).  We found that yellow-faced bumble bee colonies especially need resources to forage on during early stages of colony development.  In the same way that early childhood nutrition affects human health throughout their lives, early spring flowers help these bumble bee colonies grow!  Spring resources allow colonies to produce larger worker bees that are better at foraging for resources, leading to higher resource return even after the spring pulse of flowers ends.  The importance of spring resources has implications for bee conservation because native plants in California mostly flower during the wet spring, whereas irrigated crop plants mostly flower in the dry summer.  If we want yellow-faced bumble bees to be around to pollinate summer crops, we need to keep spring flowers on the landscape.

Elizabeth Crone, Professor, Tufts University

Hibiscus bees (Ptilothrix bombiformis) pollinate plants in the Malvaceae family including cotton, hibiscus, and saltmarsh mallow.
Photo: Judy Gallagher, Flickr

I spent a summer surveying native bees along Virginia’s Eastern Shore and studying the effects of sea level rise on native bee communities. The hibiscus bee was the most common species found on farms, meadows, and salt marshes along the coast. On steamy summer mornings, this bumble bee doppelganger could be found buzzing around marsh hibiscus or visiting blooming cotton fields.

Jessie Thuma, PhD Student, Tufts University

Blueberry cellophane bees (Colletes validus) are specialists that pollinate blueberries.
Photo: Max McCarthy

Different bee species have different diets; some collect pollen from a wide variety of flowers (generalists) while other species forage on the flowers of only a few types of plants (specialists). I sampled pollen from blueberry cellophane bees to understand what types of floral resources this species uses throughout its flight season in May and June. After identifying pollen samples under a microscope, I found that, true to their name, these bees rarely collect pollen from plants other than blueberry bushes.

Max McCarthy, Undergraduate, Tufts University

Honey bees (Apis mellifera) are generalist forages known to pollinate our crops.
Photo: Rachael Bonoan

I study how honey bees regulate in-hive temperatures in order to protect temperature-sensitive eggs and larvae. In order to develop properly, honey bee larvae must be kept at 32 – 36 °C (about 89 – 96°F). With the help of NSF REU students, I found that when an area of a honey bee hive is exposed to heat stress, the queen stops laying eggs in the “too hot” area. Instead of raising young in this hot spot, worker bees store nectar (food!).

Isaac Weinberg, PhD Student, Tufts University

Squash bees (Peponapis pruinosa) are known for pollinating…you guessed it…squash.
Photo: USDA ARS, Wikimedia Commons

As a lead field technician at UW-Madison, I worked with a team to investigate how the diversity and abundance of floral vegetation on small-scale organic farms impacted bee communities and crop flower visitation. We were interested in cucurbit (e.g. cucumbers, watermelons, squashes) pollination, as these crops rely solely on insect pollination. While I was fortunate to study a diversity of bees in this project, my heart was captured by Peponapis as the males scurried around giant squash flowers. Fun fact: When the squash flowers close mid-day, squash bee males nestle up and sleep in the protection of the closed flower until they reopen the following day. 

Sylvie Finn, Incoming PhD Student, Tufts University

Yarrow’s fork-tongue bee (Caupolicana yarrowi) pollinates wild nightshade, and is parasitized by a cuckoo beeTriepeolus grandis.
Photo: Nick Dorian

Yarrow’s fork-tongue is a large, ground-nesting solitary bee that inhabits high deserts of southwestern US and Mexico. Unlike most bees, it cannot be found during the day, but instead is active pre-dawn and post-dusk. In August 2018, several participants of the 2018 Bee Course and I woke up extra early to find nesting females. We found three nests and carefully excavated the long, sinuous tunnels to claim our prize: brood cells. Most cells contained just a Yarrow’s fork-tongue larva feeding on a slurry of pollen and nectar. In one cell, however, we also found an intruder: the larva of a cuckoo bee (Triepeolus grandis). With formidable mandibles, the cuckoo bee larva kills the host and develops on the stolen provisions. This may sound malicious, but it’s simply how the cuckoo bee lives. About 15% of all bees are cuckoos, meaning these pollinators would cease to exist without their host bees!

Nick Dorian, PhD Student, Tufts University

Stingless bees (Trigona spp.) are generalist tropical pollinators that forage on flowers and meat.
Photo: Rachael Bonoan

This past January, some TPI members traveled to Costa Rica with Tufts University’s Tropical Ecology and Conservation course. There, Nick and I studied mineral preferences of facultative “vulture bees,” stingless bees that forage at meat as well as flowers. We identified five species of bees (including Trigona silvestriana, pictured above) foraging at our baits and found that compared with unaltered baits (i.e. raw chicken), stingless bees tended to avoid baits soaked in calcium and potassium. In contrast, bees visited sodium-soaked baits just as often as unaltered baits. This suggests that like many herbivores, meat-foraging bees are likely limited by sodium and will suck up the salt wherever they can find it!

Rachael Bonoan, post-doctoral researcher, Tufts University

Orchid bees (Euglossa spp.) are known for pollinating orchids in the tropics.
Photo: Atticus Murphy

Can you see the thin yellow object on the back of this shiny green orchid bee? This is a pollinium, a packet of pollen grains, likely from an orchid. Male orchid bees forage at flowers for nectar, which provides nutritional energy, and floral scents, which are used to court females. In Costa Rica, my research partner and I captured orchid bees and used tiny glass tubes to suck up the contents of the crop, where collected nectar is stored. We measured sugar content of the bee-collected nectar and found that bees caught in human-dominated open spaces had more dilute crop contents than those caught in the forest. This may be because the open spaces were sunnier and hotter, driving the bees to drink more water.

Atticus Murphy, PhD Student, Tufts University

Interested in learning more about the bees in your backyard? Check out our insect identification guides! For even more bees, our favorite books are The Bees in your Backyard by Joseph S. Wilson and Olivia Messinger Carrill and Bees: An Identification and Native Plant Forage Guide by Heather Holm.
TPI members at work!

Tufts University Medford-Somerville is now a Bee Campus USA!

TPI is excited to announce that we have reached our goal: Tufts University Medford-Somerville has become the first urban educational institution in Massachusetts to be certified as an affiliate of the Bee Campus USA program! Bee Campus USA is designed to marshal the strengths of educational campuses for the benefit of pollinators via the creation of pollinator habitat, service-learning projects, and educational programming.

Funded by the Tufts Green Fund in 2019, we created TPI as an ecological, educational, and collaborative effort to bolster pollinator health and promote community awareness on the Medford-Somerville campus. If you’ve been keeping up with our blog, you may have heard that we have planted three pollinator-friendly gardens on the Medford-Somerville campus, which provide forage for pollinators from May through October. In just one year, we reached over 2,000 people via public-facing events such as Tufts Community Day, workshops, lectures, and the recent screening of The Pollinators. We have also advised pollinator conservation efforts at other universities in the Boston Area (e.g. Lesley University, Northeastern University) as well as other Tufts campuses. In this year’s round of Green Fund projects, the Sustainability Committee at the School of Museum of Fine Arts (SMFA) at Tufts was awarded funds to create pollinator-friendly gardens on their Boston campus. We cannot wait to help the SMFA Sustainability Committee create signage and select plants for their gardens!

TPI members with Peter Nelson, director of The Pollinators, following our Pollinator Fair (complete with honey tasting!) and film screening.
Nick Dorian teaches young community members about which crops are pollinated by bees at Tufts Community Day.

Elizabeth Crone, Professor of Biology and TPI member, is excited about the opportunities for student research and service-learning with the Medford-Somerville gardens: “In the same way that National Parks were a new idea in the early 1900’s, urban pollinator gardens are the next frontier for conserving insect diversity in the 21st century.” Our on-campus pollinator gardens have already been integrated into a Tufts undergraduate-level course, “Insect Pollinators and Real-world Science,” where students visited a garden and created their own pollinator-specific planting guides. We are now working to create undergraduate research projects to survey pollinator biodiversity and the food resources (nectar and pollen) the gardens provide, and recently created an iNaturalist Project for community scientists interested in contributing biodiversity data.

Bee City USA and Bee Campus USA are initiatives of the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, a nonprofit organization based in Portland, Oregon, with offices across the country. Bee City USA’s mission is to galvanize communities and campuses to sustain pollinators by providing them with healthy habitat, rich in a variety of native plants, i.e. food resources for pollinators. Animal pollinators such as bumble bees, sweat bees, mason bees, honey bees, butterflies, moths, beetles, flies, hummingbirds and many others are responsible for the reproduction of almost ninety percent of the world’s flowering plant species. In fact, one in every three bites of food we consume is thanks to animal pollinators, specifically insects!

“The program aspires to make people more PC—pollinator conscious, that is,” said Scott Hoffman Black, Xerces’ executive director. “If lots of individuals and communities begin planting native, pesticide-free flowering trees, shrubs and perennials, it will help to sustain many, many species of pollinators.”

We would like to thank to the Tufts Green Fund for funding this project, the Garden Club of America for their support, and our current and past members for helping us toward our goal! As a certified Bee Campus USA, we will continue doing outreach, education, and research, and spreading the pollinator love!

TPI supports pollinators by cultivating native plants on the Medford-Somerville campus. Here, a monarch collects nectar from blazing star.