The Bee Hunter's Diary

José Montalva is a graduate student at the University of Oklahoma and an instructor at East Central University. Montalva has studied the ecology, biology and taxonomy of native bees. This spring/summer, he and student researchers Landen Underwood and Mason Kicinski will conduct a bee research study at the Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical Garden. Here, he previews his work and shares why it's critical to learn more about Oklahoma's bees: 

Bees are very important pollinators. They pollinate commercial crops (most of our food) and plants in the wild (including your national parks, preserves, prairies, forests, deserts, etc). However, we know very little about them. In general, the public associates the word bee with the European honeybee (Apis mellifera). This domesticated species was brought to the U.S. by colonists over 400 years ago.

There are around 20,000 known species of bees worldwide (more than all the mammals and birds combined). There are approximately 4,000 recorded species in North America, with an incredible diversity of sizes and forms. For example, the fairy bee Perdita spp is so tiny that you can find several species of ants in your garden bigger than this bee species; Perdita looks particularly tiny when you put it by the large carpenter bee Xylocopa. There are also some shiny green metallic bees that like to lick your sweat, and some bees that make their nests with petals from some pretty flowers.  

Fairy bee and Carpenter bee Credit: Bees in Your Backyard

Fairy bee facing a Carpenter bee.
Photo Credit: BeesinYourBackyard

Bees of Oklahoma

There is little information about bee diversity within Oklahoma, especially compared to neighboring states (Texas, Kansas, Missouri), where there are more exhaustive studies about their local bee species. The most "complete" catalog of bees from Oklahoma is found in the Hymenoptera Checklist at the K.C. Emerson Entomology Museum, Oklahoma State University. This inventory has around 200 species listed for our state; however, these numbers fall short, particularly if we compare the numbers from Kansas (550 species) and Texas (1,100 species). There are some species that we know are present in states both to the North and South of Oklahoma that have not yet been listed here.

Wool carder bee Photo credi: Jeni Sidwell

The wool carder bee Anthidium michenerorum.
Photo: Jeni Sidwell

Some relatively new studies show a high diversity of bee species in Oklahoma. For example, Arduser and collaborators found a total of 80 native species of bees at The Four Canyon preserve in NW Oklahoma, and Montalva and collaborators found a total of 50 species of native bees at The Pontotoc Ridge and Oka'Yanahali preserves in South Central OK. These three sites are part of The Nature Conservancy, Oklahoma system of preserves.

Map of Oklahoma Bee Survey Locations

Map of Oklahoma with locations of the bee surveys. A: Four Canyons Preserve (Arduser and collaborators). B: The Pontotoc Ridges and Oka'Yanahali preserves (Montalva and collaborators). The 3 sites are part of The Nature Conservancy network.

Recently, several species new to science have been identified here in Oklahoma, and there is the potential for many more.

Oklahoma has a wide variety of bioregions that offer a home to different bee species. It is important to know the dynamic distribution of bees in each of these diverse regions throughout the state. Bees are our allies, they provide us with important ecosystem services (such as pollination) and can serve as a bellwether for ecological issues. Making detailed maps and taking frequent censuses allows us to better understand the position and role our unique bees play in the environment, and thus help mitigate human-caused threats to their stability.

American bumble bee Photo Credit: Jose Montalva

American bumble bee 
Photo by: J. Montalva

Bees at the Zoo

This spring and summer, thanks to the Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical Garden, a grant from the Kirkpatrick Foundation and the Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences at East Central University, we will study the native bees that inhabit the Oklahoma City Zoo. Our focus will be to identify the native bee species, record which floral resources they use, and what other environmental factors (biotic and abiotic) benefit bees. We will also be gathering information for OKC Zoo’s planned prairie habitat restoration project, located in the future Girl Scouts’ Camp Trivera. Our goal is to see how ecological restoration can provide higher quality habitats and increase the diversity of pollinators.

Jose Montalva

-José Montalva, bee researcher

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