Any rare bees around?

Some bee species pollinate only certain plants, so a diversity of bees is needed to maintain plant diversity. — File photo by Photo by Susan Safford

If pressed to list all the bees we’re familiar with, most of us would run out of names after the honey bee, the bumble bee, and perhaps the carpenter bee. But that list may include no more than one or two percent of the bee species found on the Vineyard. Varying widely in size, coloration, seasonality, habitat preference, and life history, our bees have never been systematically studied. But experts estimate that 200 or more species (out of some 400 found in New England) may occur here, and collectively, these fuzzy-bodied insects represent a vital cog in the Island’s ecology.

Happily, a new project of The Trustees of Reservations (TTOR) has begun surveying our bees, starting an inventory of species and advancing our understanding of what species occur where. The project is funded by a grant from the Edey Foundation, an Island organization with a long record of supporting innovative environmental work. Already under way, a full season of field work is being led by Dr. Paul Goldstein, a highly regarded entomologist whose work on moths helped establish the Vineyard as a rare-species hotspot.

A public education component of the project provides an opportunity for Islanders to learn about our native bees, and to acquire some basic skills that will allow interested amateurs to collect bees and contribute to the inventory. Massachusetts Audubon Society and TTOR will offer an information and training session on Thursday, June 24, from 2:30 to 4:30 pm at Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary and on June 30 from 2 to 4 pm at Long Point Reservation. To register for the Felix Neck program, call 508-627-4850. To register for the Long Point program, call 508-693-7662, ext. 11.

While some bees pose identification challenges that will daunt a beginner, many other species are easily recognizable through binoculars or just with a close-up look, and the characteristics of the major groups of bees are fairly easy to learn. So bees, like butterflies and dragonflies, offer a field of study that can be rewarding even for amateur naturalists. Natural habitats likely host the greatest diversity of bees. But a flower garden in any part of the Island probably attracts dozens of bee species over the course of a year, so it’s possible to study and appreciate these insects close to home. Careful observers may already have a sense of the amazing variety of bees that occur here: it’s often easy to find a half-dozen distinct bee species visiting a patch of flowers at one time (along with various wasps, flies, and butterflies).

A very few bees have annoying habits — the carpenter bee, for example, probably our largest bee species, which burrows into unprotected wood, including shingles and house trim. But the vast majority of our bees are helpful insects, and unlike their sometimes irascible cousins, the wasps, bees are generally docile and hard to provoke. Some are extraordinarily beautiful, too: for example, the “sweat bee” Agapostemon virescens sports a black-and yellow striped abdomen and an iridescent green head and thorax.

In their quest for nectar or pollen from flowers, which the bees use as food for themselves and their offspring, these insects efficiently transport pollen from one flower to another. This process of pollination is vital to the sexual reproduction of plant species, preventing genetic stagnation that would make it impossible for plants to adapt to changing conditions. While the honey bee (actually a non-native species) is highly efficient at pollinating many crop plants, native bees are generally much better at pollinating wildflowers. In some cases, a particular plant has a close relationship with a particular bee, which may be the only insect that can effectively pollinate the plant. So the diversity of bees tends to be a good indicator of overall ecological health. And maintaining all of our bee species is an important step for preserving our native wildflowers.

Unfortunately, bees and other pollinators have shown alarming declines in much of the world, and studies have shown that such declines, when they occur, have direct and immediate impacts on the health of plant communities. Causes for the decline of pollinators include habitat loss, habitat fragmentation, and steadily rising levels of pesticides and other harmful chemicals in the environment. By establishing a baseline for the Island’s bee population, the TTOR study will build a powerful tool for assessing the future ecological health of the Vineyard. And it is likely that the project will uncover a few scarce or unexpected species, adding to the Island’s stature as a refuge for rarities.