An interview with Joseph S. Wilson & Olivia J. Messinger Carril, author of The Bees in Your Backyard A Guide to North America’s Bees
Your book begins by telling us that there are over 4000 bees in North America, do either of you have a favorite among those?
OC: Its hard for me to pick a favorite, but if I had to… Diadasia are the genus I studied for my PhD. They are found only in North and South America and there are about 30 species in the U.S. Separately, the Exomalopsini tribe includes the genera Exomalopsis and Ancyloscelis. All of these bees are fuzzy and look like teddy bears with wings. The Exomalopsini are tiny–about the size of a tic tac, while Diadasia are considerably larger. Both groups are made up of bee species that specialize on flowers (called ‘hosts’). So in addition to their adorable appearance, I am intrigued by their lifestyle choices. For my PhD research I looked specifically at the flower scent of Diadasia host plants and compared it with the scent of non-host flowers.
JW: I have always like the small bees in the genus Perdita. There are over 650 different Perdita species so I can’t say that any one species in particular is my favorite, but as a group I really like them. I think what draws me to this group is that Perdita are not the stereotypical bee; they are all small, nearly hairless, and often have bold yellow and black markings on their faces and bodies. The smallest bee in North America is a Perdita. For me, Perdita are a good example of how diverse the bees of North America are. When I point out a Perdita to friends they are always amazed that those small creatures hovering around flowers are actually bees, not gnats.
How did you each get your start in the field of bee studies anyway?
JW: I have been interested in insects for a long time. In fact I remember having the biggest insect collection in the 6th grade. It was in making that collection that I first ran across a bee that I realized was not a honey bee (It was actually a male long-horned bee sleeping in a sunflower.) Although my interest in biology (including insects) persisted, I didn’t actually start working with bees until early in my college career. I was introduced to the people, including Olivia, working in the “bee lab” (officially the USDA ARS Bee Biology and Systematics Lab) through a girl I was dating (who later became my wife). At first I volunteered in the lab pinning and labeling bees and eventually was hired as a technician. I worked for Olivia, who was leading a project surveying bees in a National Monument in southern Utah. Later, I headed my own project investigating bee diversity in a military base in western Utah. I temporarily paused my work on bees while I pursued a PhD studying the evolution and biogeography of some nocturnal wasps, but returned to working with bees (and wasps) after completing my degree.
OC: As an undergraduate I worked part time for the USDA ARS Bee Biology and Systematics Lab. My first tasks were menial: data entry and whatever odds and ends tasks needed to be done. At the end of my first year there, however, my boss approached me with an opportunity to participate in a survey of bees in Pinnacles National Monument, in California. I would be required to camp for three months, and hike every day looking for bees on flowers. While I had little vested interest in the bee survey itself, the idea of camping and hiking every day for months on end sounded like a dream come true. By the end of that first season, though, looking at the amazing diversity of bees that I had collected (nearly 400 species in an area of 25 square miles) enthralled me. Why were some species only in certain areas, while others were found across the whole monument? Why would some bees specialize on certain plants, and what was it about those plants that was so ‘special’? How did they know when to emerge from their nests every year? I happily returned to Pinnacles for two additional seasons, no longer just for the hiking and camping, but also for answers to my questions. I’ve been trying to answer questions about bees ever since.
What made you think to write a book about bees and how did you gather the information? What is the most surprising thing you learned while writing this book?
OC: For me, the idea of a guide to bees that was accessible to those without years of training in bee biology first took shape during my years as a graduate student. Many in my cohort were interested in studies of pollinators and/or pollination, but were disheartened by the lack of information for the beginner. Here were scientists in training looking at flowering plants and categorizing their visitors as “honey bee”, “bumble bee”, or “other bee”. Considering that the “other bee” category includes nearly 4,000 species, this was unfortunate. I realized that this is in fact how most people see bees, and that too is unfortunate. There are bees in almost every backyard, pollinating gardens and flower beds right under our noses. In contrast to the birds in our backyards, which we can name from the time we are five years old, bees are lumped under the heading of “Bee”, and we are taught to steer clear because they are dangerous. In fact they are beautiful, amazing, (harmless), and inordinately important creatures, but completely misunderstood. I don’t remember who said it to first, but when I lamented to Joe about how inaccessible the story of the bee was to the lay person, he completely agreed. “We oughta write a book” was the outcome of that conversation.
We gathered the information for this book by pouring over the scientific literature, collecting every bit of information we could about each genus, and then synthesizing it all into a few short paragraphs that were understandable to anybody. For me, the most surprising thing was about myself. Here I had been studying bees in one way or another for over 15 years and assumed I knew more or less all there was to know about bees. I was so very wrong. Bees are incredible, and each species has a unique story to tell. Even today most species and even entire genera are complete mysteries to scientists either because they are rare or because no one has taken the time to get to know them.
JW: More and more as we turn on the TV, open a newspaper, or browse the covers of magazines, we are aware of the role of bees in our lives. I began to be somewhat dismayed by the mischaracterization of bees from trusted news outlets and prestigious media companies. If the common portrayals of bees was to be believed, bees were either killers (i.e., killer bees) or they were in grave danger from colony collapse disorder (which only affects the honey bee). I was frustrated that while the public was gaining an appreciation for the importance of bees, they were largely in the dark about what a bee actually is, and how diverse North America’s bee community is. The decision to write this book came after discussions about the need to educate people about bees. Education is the first step to conservation.
Like Olivia, as we researched this book I was blown away by the diverse and complex world of bees. Most bee researchers focus on a small group and become experts on that group. To write this book, Olivia and I had to learn about the lifestyles of all of North America’s bees, which was challenging, but also quite rewarding. Furthermore, we endeavored to include high quality photographs of as many of the bees as we could, and we hoped to take these pictures ourselves. I learned firsthand how challenging bee photography can be, and we ended up adding a section in the book about some of the tricks we learned about photographing bees.
In the introduction to your book, you discuss the many misconceptions surrounding bees–what ‘myth’ do you find yourself most often dispelling?
OC & JW: It used to be that every time we told folks what it is that we studied, they would try to find common ground with us by relating a story about that one time that they had been stung by a bee (the truth is, only female bees are even capable of stinging, and they are not very aggressive. In all the many years of collecting bees and handling them–sometimes hundreds in a day, we’ve been stung less than two dozen times). Anymore, though, people skip telling us about being stung and ask: “So how bad off are the bees?”
How bad is the bee decline, really?
OC: The truth is that 1) we don’t really know because 2) its complicated. Its complicated because there are so many species of bees. If one kind is in decline, we really can’t assume that all 30,000 kinds around the world are. Or because some are in decline in the eastern United States doesn’t mean that western populations of that same species are too. We can guess that many of the landscape alterations we’ve made in the U.S. are not beneficial (replacing midwestern prairies with monocultures of corn and soy, fragmenting desert areas with parking lots and strip malls, perhaps even our unchecked use of insecticides), but the actual impact is largely unknown. Systematic bee surveys were seldom conducted 100 years ago, so we don’t have solid baseline data against which to compare current population levels. And at least some bee species seem to naturally vary 10 to 100-fold from year to year based in part on floral bloom and weather.
We do know for certain that for several years honey bee populations appeared to be dropping dramatically and the reasons for that are still not entirely clear. Interestingly, this isn’t the first time that honey bee populations have suffered declines–there are recorded instances of honey bee declines dating back at least 100 years and perhaps even longer. Declines in honey bee populations are economically disastrous to be sure, but they don’t tell us much about the many other pollinating bees that help with fruit and seed set. Looking at other bees, there are evident declines in the populations of some species of bumble bees in the last 30 years. Alternatively, squash bees have expanded their ranges in the last 100 years; they were once just in the southwest but have spread as squash plants have been planted in gardens across the country. Considering the contrast in just these two kinds of bees, we are hesitant to make any sort of broad statement about the state of bees as a whole.
What do you hope people get from this book, and who is it meant for?
JW: While my hope is that this book will be useful for naturalists, gardeners, and professional entomologists, I think everyone will gain a greater understanding and appreciation for bees by reading it. I like to think that this book will enable more educated conversations about bees, which will lead to better designed conservation efforts both by professionals and by homeowners.
There are stories in the news every week discussing how important bees are to agriculture and what a loss it would be to us if they disappeared. However, your book is titled “The Bees in your Backyard”… why are bees important in our backyards?
JW: Bees are important for agriculture, but they are equally important at smaller scales. Bees make for healthy flower gardens and healthy vegetable gardens and they are also beneficial to fruit trees. Studies have shown that backyard gardens are good for healthy bee communities and vice versa; surrounding natural areas are good for backyard bee populations
OC: Near my own small garden in New Mexico some weedy-looking globe mallow popped up this year. I opted to leave them and let them flower, even though I have to wade through them to get to my row of vegetable plants. Because they provide such a bountiful resource for the bees, I’ve found that my garden (which has fewer blossoms than the globe mallow patch) is much more frequently visited by bees than in years past. I’m reaping the rewards in the form of tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, pumpkins, watermelons, chiles, and eggplants. Since we don’t know if most kinds of bees are experiencing population declines, it seems wise to assume they might be. If that’s the case, planting a few extra bee-friendly flowers or encouraging them to nest in our backyards certainly can’t hurt anything and most likely will be a great help to these wonderful creatures.