Article for July - August 2008
Researcher Sam Droege Plans National Bee Study
by David L. Green
“When someone asks, ‘What is happening to the bees?’ we have to say we simply don’t know,” says Sam Droege, a U.S. Geological Survey researcher at the Patuxent Wildlife Refuge in Maryland. “No one has looked. Unfortunately the bees don’t have much glamour. We’ve got to get beyond the big sexy animals. If we lose bees, it’s not simply an economic problem; it’s a major environmental issue, on a par with global warming. If we monitor them we’ll have a whole new window on the environment.”
Droege has plans to set up a national bee survey—something like the bird and butterfly surveys that have become annual events in recent years. He and some like-minded people have been setting up the protocols for the study. All this is dependent upon getting some grants for the classification of bees that are found—and getting volunteers to do the fieldwork.
Droege has made several brief visits to the Sandhills Wildlife Refuge near McBee in the past two years as part of his preliminary surveys—and in so short a time has found about fifty species of bees that were not known to be in South Carolina. He estimates that there are about five hundred species total within the state. Martin Hauser, an entomologist at the University of South Carolina, says there are more than that—that the state is blessed with an especially rich diversity of bee species, more than in his native Germany.
“If we lost our honeybees, what amount of our food pollination could wild bees pick up? Many of our food crops, such as watermelons and pumpkins, are in a monoculture system. For wild bees to pick up that pollination, production may need to be decentralized because wild bees must have wild places. Right now we know so little that we can’t generalize much,” Droege says.
“Some day I hope we’ll have a device into which you can drop a bee, and it will analyze the DNA and spit out the species name,” says Droege. “But right now, we have to look at many of the smaller species under a microscope to ID them. We are trying to make the collection process so easy and simple that anyone could do it. There’s no budget to run a survey with hired personnel. Our setup has to be volunteer-friendly.”
The project is based on setting out a set of colored plastic cups with a little detergent in them as traps on sunny days. Droege has standardized the pigment formulas for the paints that are used to color the cups, but almost all the equipment can be obtained locally, or from him. The bees, thinking the cups are flowers, come to investigate, then drown in the container. The bees are then preserved in drug-store alcohol, to be identified and counted later.
The system only works with the smaller bees; larger bees have to be netted. The protocols that have been hammered out for bees have an advantage over the bird and butterfly counts, he says, because the species identifications can be rechecked later from the specimens that are collected. They will become part of museums and university collections.
Droege says he hopes that interested people will begin to form groups, to learn the protocols, and start doing preliminary surveys to get ready for the big one that is planned as soon as the funds become available. Possibly some of the present butterfly and naturalist clubs will add this as a current interest. Droege also sponsors about four free bee-identification seminars each year, and he hopes each group will send one person, who will return and teach the rest of the group.
The protocols and a lot of helpful bee-identification tips are in Droege’s current manual, which can be downloaded at http://bio2.elmira.edu/fieldbio/handybeemanual.html
Dave Green was a commercial beekeeper who specialized in crop pollination service for growers of watermelons, cukes, squash, cantaloupes, strawberries, peaches and apples. He sold his business and retired a few years ago. After awhile he took up a second career as editor of a small-town weekly newspaper.
© 2008 South Carolina Wildlife Magazine, July - August 2008 - www.scwildlife.com