Bees from the Emerald City

And now, for something completely different.

Last week, I talked about the bees that got me started on the Western Bumblebee Project.  This week, I’m going to talk about the bee that really got me interested in native pollinators in the first place.

When I was in grad school, I got rather sick for a while and needed to take some time to recuperate.  One thing led to another, and I wound up living in Susan’s basement in Seattle for a few months.  

Now, I’d already started working on bees.  My dissertation (then, as now, incomplete) was on the practical economics of bumblebee foraging.  I knew a little about West Coast bumblebees, and a little more about carpenter bees (which, as solitary foragers, served as foils to the social bumblebees in my dissertation.)  However, I also knew that there were no large carpenter bees in the Pacific Northwest.  

Actually, I would have said that there were no carpenter bees at all, and I would have been wrong.  I digress.

The first few weeks, I spent a lot of time sitting in Susan’s garden, watching bees.  It was a bad year for honeybees, so I only saw a few of those; it was a better year for bumblebees, so I mostly watched them.  (I didn’t see any Western Bumblebees, although I didn’t pay much attention to the omission, not having any particular expectations to compare them to.  They were already dead when I moved to Seattle.)

Then I saw this.

 

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That’s Agapostemon texanus (female), a metallic green sweat bee.  

(Believe it or not, "metallic green sweat bee" is very nearly the official name for these things.  “Metallic” and “green” are obvious enough; “sweat bee” refers to any member of the Halictidae, based on the habit of some species in salt-poor environments of landing on mammals to harvest salt.  The sweat bees around Puget Sound get plenty of salt from other sources, so the source of the name requires explanation.)

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Seeing one of those for the first time completely blew me away.  Part of the shock comes from the fact that, except for the color, Agapostemon is… well, as bee-like a bee as bees ever get.  The head is bee-shaped, the body is bee-shaped, the antennae are bee-shaped… she even carries pollen on the upper segments of her hind legs.  (If you think any of that is redundant, I assure you that it’s not.  The world of bees is a world of exceptions.)  The only really unexpected things about her are her color (and her color is brilliant!) and her size.  She’s about half the length of a honeybee, rather like a self-propelled grain of iridescent green rice (cooked, long grain) – with an attitude.

If things like this could fly around without my noticing (and I had no reason to believe that I’d seen the first one to come by), then I had been looking for the wrong things.  I was missing part of the story.

And that’s when I really started studying bees.

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