Learn about the bzzzzz from a New Mexico melittologist

By Jan Martenson and Olivia Carril
For The Taos News
Posted 5/9/19

What is a melittologist? It is a person who studies melittology (from Greek word melitta, meaning "bee" and -logy, meaning "study of"), a branch of entomology concerning the scientific study of bees. …

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Learn about the bzzzzz from a New Mexico melittologist

Posted

What is a melittologist? It is a person who studies melittology (from Greek word melitta, meaning "bee" and -logy, meaning "study of"), a branch of entomology concerning the scientific study of bees. Want to meet a melittologist?

Come to the May 15 meeting of the Taos Chapter of the Native Plant Society of New Mexico to meet Olivia Carril, PhD., plant biologist from Santa Fe. She will tell us "How to Woo a Bee: The Role of Flower Color, Scent and Shape in Attracting Bees." The first simple step toward protecting our pollinators, be they bees, butterflies, moths and hummingbirds, is to provide the flowers they need, using no pesticides. With abundant native wildflowers, your task is even simpler: don't mow them down! Dr. Carril will help us identify the plants that native bees find most nutritious.

Carril is a co-author of "The Bees in Your Backyard: A Guide to North America's Bees" and has been studying native bees for over 20 years. She spoke to our group in 2017 and had led bee identification walks for us as well as the Taos Land Trust at Río Fernando Park. She is entertainingly informative, so join us Wednesday, (May 15) at 6 p.m. in the Kit Carson Electric Cooperative Boardroom, 118 Cruz Alta Road.

Documenting bee populations in the Río Grande del Norte National Monument

With funding from the Bureau of Land Management - Taos Field Office, Carril is researching bee populations in north central New Mexico. The following is her description of the project, originally published on the Institute for Applied Ecology website earlier this year:

"The Southwest is often characterized by its stark beauty and vast landscapes. Here, rocks that sparkle in a ceaseless sun create a mosaic, from which sprout homely junipers and unwelcoming cacti. Mountains lie silently in the distance, the view of them uninterrupted by lush trees, rolling hills or even humid air. In the absence of vegetation, noisy invertebrates, or the smell of running water, many have labeled this area a wasteland. To native bees, however, the Southwest is a mecca; the deserts are to bees what the tropics are to butterflies or beetles.

"Native bees abound in the Southwest. Of the 4,000 species estimated to live in the United States and Canada, one quarter are thought to be found in New Mexico alone. These bees look little like the honeybee. Many are a few millimeters in size, appearing more like pollen dust swirling above late-blooming perennial shrubs. Others sound like WWII bombers--hovering, legs tucked tight, appearing to concentrate as they attempt the difficult task of landing their shiny black gumball-sized bodies on the pink corolla of a nodding Palmer's Penstemon. None of these native bees live in hives. Instead the majority are referred to as 'solitary.' Each female builds her own nest, usually a hole she has dug in the ground, in which she places eggs, one per carefully constructed chamber along a main tunnel. Each chamber also gets a giant ball of pollen that she has harvested from flowering plants that are in bloom at the time, combined with a species-specific amount of nectar that she carries back in her crop. The nest is sealed, and she is dying just as her eggs hatch, and the larvae begin the year-long process of developing into next years' pollinators.

"….Together with IAE [Institute of Applied Ecology], I am now inventorying the bees of Río Grande del Norte National Monument (RGNM). At over 240,000 acres, RGNM is an excellent landscape in which to study the bees associated with several of the larger ecoregions of New Mexico.

"… Our project aims not only to inventory all bee species for the monument, but also to document plant-bee interactions, identifying which of the flowering plants that are found in the monument are most attractive or important for bees. … As 2018 was an exceptionally dry year, we also will have the opportunity to evaluate bee responses to droughts.

"One year of sampling remains for the project. Bee identifications are ongoing, … thus, our findings to date are tentative. Before the start of this project in 2016, fewer than 40 bee species were known from Taos County. Tentatively, we have identified … at least 140 species.

"….. In our final year, the focus will be on collections in areas we have not yet sampled in the monument, as well as resampling montane island habitats. Additionally, another year of collections … will allow us to compare a drought year to a relatively wet year, and the effect of each on bee populations. Our hope is that our work in RGNM will provide … not only the knowledge of which bees reside here, but also what resources they require. …. As the monument is relatively protected land, the presence of pesticides, the impact of significant habitat modification and the fragmentation of connected environments are limited, providing a backdrop against which to measure bee populations in areas more susceptible to pollinator threats."

Martenson is the president of the Taos chapter of the Native Plant Society of New Mexico and a member of the board of NPSNM. Carril is a plant biologist, bee researcher and author from Santa Fe.

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