Native bees: In the wilds of Taos, scientific discoveries abound

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Perdita minima, the smallest bee in all of North America, is so tiny it fits comfortably on the head of an average bee. And it lives right here in New Mexico.

So do bees in the Hylaeus genus, the "yellow-faced bees" that live in branches of Apache plume, look like wasps and actually eat pollen instead of collecting it on their hind legs.

The cuckoo bees, the Nomadinae, also live in the Land of Enchantment. They sneak into nests of other bees to lay their eggs. That way, when the young Nomadinae hatch, they can quickly slit the throat of the other bee and eat all the rations put there by its mother.

And those are just a few of the bees we know about.

The scope of what isn't known to science about native bees is far vaster than what is. Olivia Messinger Carril, co-author of field guide "The Bees in Your Backyard" and a bee scientist who works throughout the high-desert environments of Northern New Mexico, knows this firsthand.

Over the next several years, Carril is slowly but surely collecting, pinning, labeling and identifying the little critters in the first major survey of native bees in Northern New Mexico.

As she recently told The Taos News, "In order to help the bees, we have to know them. They all have a different story to tell."

When it comes to the essential, ecological job of pollinators, any kid can tell you about honeybees' story.

But even though honeybees are vitally important for agriculture, they are the "black sheep" of the bee world, Carril explained.

Honeybees live in hives with hundreds of other bees. However, most bees are solitary, meaning they live in the ground or a twig and will spend the entirety of their lives alone. Whereas honeybees have a "true division of labor" -- with queens laying eggs and workers doing everything else -- native pollinators do it all themselves.

To boot, honeybees, Apis mellifera, are just one species.

There are possibly between 20,000 and 30,000 species of bees worldwide, according to Carril. In North America alone, there are likely 4,000 species of bees.

New Mexico has about a fourth of the bees found on the continent, or 1,000 species. And Taos County -- though official databases list fewer than 40 species -- is likely home to at least 400 species of bees.

Unlike other animals that see the most diversity in the tropics, bees are most diverse in deserts. There are some hypotheses about why: dry soil, fewer infections, microclimates and the variety of flowers.

Basically, there are lots of types of bees and a lot of them.

"We know next to nothing about them," however, said Lillis Urban, a botanist and ecologist with the Bureau of Land Management, the agency behind Carril's foundational survey of native bees in the Río Grande del Norte National Monument.

Building a reference collection of the species of bees in Northern New Mexico is a big task that begins with collecting the creatures.

This summer, Carril kicked off the collection season with the help of a crew at Rocky Mountain Youth Corps, the local nonprofit especially known for working on the trails of Taos' public lands.

The team of young people spent a few days in Pilar, Arroyo Hondo and near San Antonio Mountain collecting bees under Carril's direction. Her tool of choice is a net -- made out of a golf club handle, piano wire and wedding veil materials -- a vial to euthanize the bees and a "satchel of death" to keep it all organized.

Like most people who aren't bee scientists, "they didn't know a lot of what they were looking for," Carril said. "You think bees are big and fast. … By the end of the day, they figured out that most bees are the size of a period. They're tiny, tiny things."

In the course of the week, the crew found a "preponderance" of green sweat bees, Agapostemon, though they came across examples of Halictus and Bombus (bumblebees), too.

"I think we got some things that are new records for the county," Carril said of the couple of hundred specimens collected. But the "real work" of identifying bees under a microscope doesn't happen until the offseason, after mature bees have died and their eggs are incubating for months on end.

Each bee is pinned in a box with an accompanying label of where it was collected and other information. Then Carril works her way through the identification keys -- tools to help biologists pin down exactly what species they're handling.

The survey of Northern New Mexico bees is funded through two more years. In that time, Carril will visit the same plots each month of the flowering season, slowly getting more and more data about the bees of the monument.

The collection Carril will eventually build has a few aims. For one, part of it will be on display to educate people about the buzzing little bees they're likely to encounter around these parts.

But the other part of the collection will live at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Pollinating Insects Collection, a trove of more than 2 million insects from national parks and monuments, all stored in hundreds of glass-topped drawers. Collections like that - and the information gathered, scrutinized and synthesized by people like Carril - are essential to other scientists who will one day do further studies of the pollinators of Northern New Mexico.

"No one has done this before in this type of intensive way. This is so exciting that this is happening," Carril said.

For more information about native bees, see Carril's book, "The Bees in Your Backyard," and New Mexico State University's "Pocket Guide to the Native Bees of New Mexico."

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