Nature Notes: In the Arid Lands of West Texas, An “Amazon of Bees”

Melittologist Bashira Chowdury with a native longhorn bee, at the University of Texas at El Paso’s Chihuahuan Desert Gardens in March.

By Andrew Stuart

“Birds do it. Bees do it. Even educated fleas do it.”

Lyricist Cole Porter may have rendered it with a characteristic wit and concision. But it wasn’t a new idea. Poets have long seen in the bee’s regard for the flower an image of attraction, of the energies of spring and the sweet forces of allure in nature.

The desert isn’t usually part of the poetic picture. But, scientifically, arid areas are bee havens. And the Chihuahuan Desert has among the greatest diversity of bees of any region on earth.

Honey bees are the most recognizable members of the bee lineage. But they’re imports, introduced by European settlers in the 17th century. Massing in colonies 60,000 strong, European honey bees have adapted, and they flourish in West Texas.

They’re hardly the full story. The native bees of the Southwest are solitary. They nest in the ground, or in plants.

And in March, May and late summer, when plants blooms, they’re busy.

Mason bees. Longhorn bees, with their extended antennae, or “horns.” Local carpenter bees, blue-black in color, are among the continent’s largest bees, and nest in agaves, sotols, yuccas. Our region claims the world’s smallest bee. Perdita minima is just 2 millimeters long.

Bashira Chowdury is a melittologist – a bee scientist – from Auburn University. The Chihuahuan Desert, she said, is “the Amazon of bees.”

“It’s like I am literally the equivalent of a British explorer in the 1800s running around the Amazon,” Chowdury said. “So, yes, we’re out here trying to understand indigenous crop pollination systems. We’re out here trying to understand urban pollination. We’re trying to understand landscape effects on pollination systems. But we’re also running around like Alfred Russell Wallace, collecting, not butterflies, but bees.”

Chowdury has launched the Chihuahuan Desert Bee Biodiversity Initiative. Our region may be a “bee hot spot,” but, until now, it’s received little scientific attention.

From El Paso to the Guadalupe Mountains, Big Bend to Ciudad Juarez, Chowdury and her team are catching bees. They expect to find scores of new species.

“This project will probably never end,” Chowdury said, “and that’s the beauty of good science. There will probably be brand-new species of bees found 20 years from now, even if we came out every single year. The diversity is that rich.”

Our region’s range of habitats partly accounts for the diversity. And ground-dwelling bees must waterproof their nests – making arid terrain favorable.

Honey bees have the luxury of collective effort. But the native female bee, like a frontierswoman, is a study in self-reliance. She must dig, burrow or find a cavity for her nest. She gathers pollen, and rolls it into balls to provision her eggs.

Stinging can be fatal for a bee. Honey-bee colonies have members to spare. But a solitary bee has everything to lose. Native bees sting only as a last resort.

Male natives are rootless free agents, with a single agenda. Everything that moves is evaluated as a potential mate. They may tuck into a flower to rest, but they have no fixed home.

Almost every bee lineage has a corresponding “cuckoo” bee. The cuckoos are parasites, “hijacking” nests. While a target is foraging, the cuckoo deposits its eggs – to be provisioned and raised by the host. Often, cuckoo larvae hatch first – and eat the host’s larvae.

Given the diversity, the opportunities for pure science are boundless. But many plants rely on bees to reproduce – as they “shop,” bees unwittingly pollinate plants. The study of bee ecology here has implications for the global food supply.

The Southwest and Mexico are one of the world’s great historic centers of agriculture. Critical crops originated here – including squash. That depended on a desert native – the squash bee.

“Our acorns, our butternuts, our pumpkins, our crooknecks – everything came from here,” she said, “and from the bee that came from here, which is important. We actually cultivated not only the squashes, but the bee, so we cultivated an ecological interaction over time, and this is indigenous groups.”

Native farmers knew how to use bees to create squash hybrids. And they recognized the importance of preserving nesting habitat for bees.

Reclaiming those ancient insights, and better understanding squash-bee behavior, could make farming today more sustainable.

The Chihuahuan Desert remains among the planet’s wildest places. Even its smallest creatures have untapped secrets to reveal.

Nature Notes is underwritten by the Dixon Water Foundation and is produced by Marfa Public Radio in cooperation with the Sibley Nature Center. This episode was written by Andrew Stuart.


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