Friday, August 24, 2012


"Concerning the generation of animals akin to them, as hornets and wasps, the facts in all cases are similar to a certain extent, but are devoid of the extraordinary features which characterize bees; this we should expect, for they have nothing divine about them as the bees have."
~ Aristotle 384 BC – 322 BC

I like this quote - it might not be overly friendly to wasps and hornets but describes human's fascination with bees. Of course we don't know if Aristotle meant the honey bee in particular or if he had more insight into the diversity of these little guys that are so important to us. 20 000 - 30 000 species of bees are out there and the western honey bee (Apis mellifera) is only one of them. Bees are the most important pollinator on the planet and at the same time they may be among the most extinction-prone organisms. Therefore, the study of bees and their ecosystems seems paramount but taxonomic knowledge for many groups is incomplete. Furthermore, individual species can't be identified in a timely fashion. Proper morphological taxonomy takes time especially when the characters you have to look for are minute and require a specialists eye. Community studies that could deliver data for biodiversity studies and ecosystem assessments need more rapid systems.

A case for DNA Barcoding?

Absolutely. Bee scientists have already acknowledged the value of DNA Barcoding:

"In the case of bees, the ability to identify all life stages and to associate individuals of different sex represents an important extension of existing identification capabilities. The assembly of a barcode library for the bees of the world will not only provide insights into the origins and extent of bee diversity, but it will create a new tool for both routine and challenging identifications." (Sheffield et al. 2009).

A global campaign to barcode all bees has been established in 2010 but similar to many such efforts funding is sparse or simply non-existent. This is especially surprising given the importance of bees. The following quote from Laurence Packer, one of the worlds leading melittologists illustrates this very nicely:

"If all birds dropped dead tomorrow, only chicken farmers and academic ornithologists would be inconvenienced. If all bees died out, there would be worldwide food shortages and perhaps one-quarter of the human population would starve."

As you can see he is much better with words than I, a fact also well documented in his wonderful book "Keeping the bees". The quote I stole from his website though.

High resolution imaging

But DNA Barcoding isn't the only new thing that can help with bee taxonomy. Cory Sheffield, Curator of Invertebrate Zoology at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum is using high resolution imaging to help with identifying the species he is interested in. The power of such high resolution images becomes obvious when you look at a small online key to the subfamily Andreninae developed at York University, Toronto in Laurence Packer's lab. The resolution and the quality of the images are stunning. I remember my taxonomic training during the years as undergrad. I wish we would have had such keys. Instead one had to go through endless pages filled with cryptic paragraphs describing features we never knew existed. Unless you are a taxonomic expert this vocabulary is quickly forgotten and it is immensely helpful to have good pictures at hand. After all most of us are best at visual learning and perhaps more importantly  images of such superb quality give many people a greater appreciation of these little critters and their beauty. Furthermore, new keys for farmers will make it easier to identify the bees that pollinate their crops.
Euherbstia excellens from the Andreninae key at York University

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