Springtime Bug-Out

Crocuses, robins and spring peepers aren't the only creatures that signal springtime. Jerry Rozen, curator of the bee collection at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, explains what bees do all winter and how they know when to emerge from hibernation.

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IRA FLATOW, host:

Up next, Flora stays with us for our Video Pick of the Week. And what have we got this week Flora?

LICHTMAN: Switching gears, slightly. We were looking forward to spring and, you know, everybody knows the classic springtime - signals of springtime, the robin, the spring peepers. But there other organisms that herald - that are harbingers of warm weather.

So we went and took a tour through the American Museum of Natural History's insect compactor to look at the bugs that are coming out this time of year, although it's snowing here in New York.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Wait a minute. Wait, wait, wait, wait. Insect - is that like a garbage compactor that's now squashing all the bugs?

(Soundbite of laughter)

LICHTMAN: It sounds violent, but actually, it's just the file cabinets that get compacted.

FLATOW: Okay.

LICHTMAN: But we looked at some of the bugs that come out and you can expect, for example, stink bugs are coming out around this time, mayflies in May. Obviously, junebugs, you know, coming out in June.

FLATOW: Right.

LICHTMAN: And we also got a sort of special look at the bee collection at the American Museum of Natural History. And in fact, we have with us today one of the people we interviewed, Dr. Jerry Rozen, who is the curator of the bee collection - and you can pronounce the class correctly and I'm sure I can't -to talk to us about when bees are coming out. So are bees - bees are - are they out yet?

Dr. JEROME ROZEN (Curator of Apoidea, American Museum of Natural History): Oh, yes. They're out. I collected the first wild bee on the 17th of March, right in my home.

LICHTMAN: But they're - it - when it's too cold, bees can't fly, right?

Dr. ROZEN: That's right. When it's very cold, why, insects, in general, have a hard time moving around. They go into a cold stupor. They just are sluggish.

LICHTMAN: So what are the bees in New York, for example, doing right now?

Dr. ROZEN: Well, right now, they're doing nothing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Like the rest of us.

Dr. ROZEN: Probably muttering under their breath like the rest of us.

LICHTMAN: Where do they - where are they when they're not flying around? Where do they hang out?

Dr. ROZEN: Well, they hang out - most of the bees now will be hanging out in their nests.

FLATOW: That's outside of the hive?

Dr. ROZEN: Well, a hive is a term that we use for honeybees and honeybees only. A hive is nothing but a nest of a honeybee. So there are all kinds of nests in different places. Most nests around here, I think, are in the ground, but there are nests in hollow tubes, in old beetle burrows, for example. Carpenter bees, for example, are in their wooden holes right now.

FLATOW: Well, if there are no flowers on the trees now, where - if the bees are coming out, what are they doing? Where are they going?

Dr. ROZEN: Well, they're waiting for the flowers to come out, just like we are waiting for the flowers to come out. And a few flowers are out, as a matter of fact. And then there are flowers that bloom at different times of the year, and they're some very early blooming flowers.

For - and some of that you don't recognize, for example, willows. Willows bloom very early in the springtime, and they give forth a lot of pollen and a lot of nectar. And the earliest bees will probably visit willows.

FLATOW: And also the forsythia are also - seem to be coming out.

Forsythia is coming out, but I don't think it offers a reward because I never see any bees go into forsythia. They might be attracted to the color, but they're not going to be attracted for the food that the forsythia bloom, you would think, would be offering.

LICHTMAN: How many species of bees are there?

Dr. ROZEN: Well, we don't know exactly, but it's in the neighborhood of 19 to 20,000. I think the official count of the number of described species of bees is 19,500, but those are the ones that are described. And then there are a lot of new species that have yet to be discovered, not so many around here.

But even around here, there are - occasionally, we found new species. For example, in our laboratory right now, we have two species represented from New York City that have not been described. And when I say described, I mean named and described. When you describe a species, you put a name on it and that's -it is the official name of that species forevermore.

FLATOW: So you're going to have a Bronx bee or something?

Dr. ROZEN: Well, I don't know what it's going to be called.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: The Brooklyn bees. That was a team we had.

Dr. ROZEN: Might be a Staten Island bee.

FLATOW: There you go.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Oh, I won't take Manhattan out.

LICHTMAN: And you - I mean, you all have a - one of the amazing things about our trip to the museum was just how many bees you have in your collection. Can you give people a sense of the scale of the collection?

Dr. ROZEN: Well, it's a - it's one of the largest bee collections in the New World, maybe not the largest. It's - we pride ourselves in the size of our collection. But actually, if you put all the bee collections that are sprinkled around the country together, we would still be complaining we don't have enough specimen. So - and we share specimens...

LICHTMAN: And is it millions? How many are we talking about?

Dr. ROZEN: Oh, yeah, we have roughly between 400,000 and 500,000 specimens. Now, these are bees from all over the world, not just in the United States and certainly not just New York. But there are 20 - 19 or 20,000 species in the world and we need to understand them, so we need many specimens of every species to understand the variation that one finds there.

FLATOW: In the video that Flora made, it's our Video Pick of the Week up on our website, you show how you - how a live bee goes from being alive to underneath a pin.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: And there's - describe the process for us, what you do.

Dr. ROZEN: Well, we - when we go out to collect bees, what we use is a rather large insect net, butterfly net, if you wish - any net will do. And we merely get the bees in the net, and then we transfer them to a killing tube.

FLATOW: And what's in the tube?

Dr. ROZEN: Well, it's a - it can be various substances. It can be ethyl acetate, it can be cyanide, an insecticide of one sort or another. And they die very quickly.

FLATOW: And then you - as we see in the video Flora made.

LICHTMAN: Yeah. You put it right through. But one thing is that that was it. I mean, there were no chemicals. They just sort of keep, right?

Dr. ROZEN: Well, one thing to preserve them, then you have to be worried - I mean, one thing to kill them and another thing to preserve them. To preserve them is very simple. You simply mount them on a pin and then keep them in a very dry atmosphere, as in a museum. And you do not let museum pests, a museum pest is maybe a beetle or an ant or something of that sort, get to it because they will chew on the dead carcass.

LICHTMAN: And - but they don't decompose otherwise?

Dr. ROZEN: No, well, they do internally. The soft tissue simply dries out and you're left with the exoskeleton...

FLATOW: Wow.

Dr. ROZEN: ...the outside of the animal that stays perfectly for a very long period of time.

FLATOW: A hundred years?

Dr. ROZEN: Well, certainly longer that that.

FLATOW: Really? Wow.

Dr. ROZEN: For example, take a look at amber insects. These are insects that are preserved in amber. They are virtually the entire animal or the external part of the entire animal that may be a million or two million years old.

FLATOW: Wow. We're talking about bees this hour with Dr. Jerry Rozen on SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow with Flora Lichtman. Let's go to the phones. We have a phone call from Kyle in Pomona, New Jersey. Hi, Kyle.

KYLE (Caller): Hey. How are you?

FLATOW: Hi, there.

KYLE: I had a question for your caller. I study entomology in New Jersey at The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey. And on the 7th of March, we collected a series of bees from the family Colletidae, what we determined to be Colletes inaequalis, to the best of our ability.

And at that time, the only abundant flowers were red maple, Acer rubrum. And we couldn't find much information about any bees feeding on red maple, so I was wondering if your guest had any background knowledge on bees that would feed on red maple.

FLATOW: Okay. Thanks. Dr. Rozen?

Dr. ROZEN: Well, I'm almost certain that you're correct all the way around. It is Colletes inaequalis. It's a very early flying Colletes that defined in this area.

And if you want to find out about the food preference of various species of bees, go to the hymenoptera catalogue, the catalogue of hymenoptera in north of Mexico. And you'll find good hints about what kinds of bees go to which flowers.

FLATOW: We're always happy to unite scientists and their bees. I'm shallow. So that was it. It's good - you knew that right off the top of your head. Do you know all the bees in the New York City area?

Dr. ROZEN: No, by no means. Well...

FLATOW: They say nice things about you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. ROZEN: In the New York City area, there...

FLATOW: Yes.

Dr. ROZEN: ...well, let's say, in New York state, there are over 400 species of bees. That's a lot of bees.

FLATOW: Wow. I think most people think all bees are the same.

Dr. ROZEN: If you go out to Arizona, you'll find that there are probably seven or 800 species of bees. In Southwest, in general, the bees are far more abundant in terms of species representation than the New York City area.

FLATOW: And how far north - how far south or north going toward the poles can they survive in that kind of cold weather?

Dr. ROZEN: Well, you - well, it's not a matter of surviving. It's whether they're adapted to getting through the rough cold periods and come out in the springtime when the flowers are blooming. They'll go virtually as far north as they can go where there are flowers.

LICHTMAN: Are there places in the world that you are just dying to go to look for bees?

Dr. ROZEN: Oh, yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Oh, maybe somebody is listening. Tell us about where you like to go.

Dr. ROZEN: I and the chap who works with me would like very much to get to China and study the bees there. And as a matter of fact, we have made some initial endeavors along that line, and maybe it'll come about.

LICHTMAN: Are there tricks to collecting them? I mean, how do you plan a trip like that?

Dr. ROZEN: Well, in this case, we will get in touch with specialists in the country who know about us and we know about them, and we talk to them. Can they accommodate us, can they find permits so that we can collect the insects in their country and...

LICHTMAN: And take your nets

Dr. ROZEN: ...and take - well - in general, scientists are very internationally minded...

FLATOW: Yeah.

Dr. ROZEN: ...we go all over.

FLATOW: Do you expect there are a lot of undiscovered bees there in China?

Dr. ROZEN: Almost certainly. Almost certainly. I think it's one of the areas where - and even though they - a few - many of them have been collected by Chinese entomologists, but we don't get a chance to see them. All the more reason to go there.

And we want to do more than collect bees. We want to understand how they live. I'm particularly interested in the nesting biology of bees.

FLATOW: Any new information about the colony collapse syndrome or...

Dr. ROZEN: Well, that's a problem that honeybees face.

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. ROZEN: And I - one hears of explanations all the time. They don't really know what it's all about. My own suspicion is that maybe any number of things that are affecting colonies in different parts of the country, in different parts of the world. We don't think it's a single causative agent.

FLATOW: And it affects different places. It didn't really hurt the New York City area that much, I understand, is that right?

Dr. ROZEN: Not too much. And indeed, in California where people complained about the almond crop...

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. ROZEN: ...one year and it was disastrous. Well, the following year, that part of California had a bumper - had almond crops.

FLATOW: Wow.

Dr. ROZEN: So it's - the entomologists, the farmers, they coped with those problems.

FLATOW: Well, Dr. Rozen, thank you very much for talking about bees this hour with us.

Dr. ROZEN: It's always a pleasure.

FLATOW: Thank you, Flora, for the Video Pick of the Week up in there on SCIENCE FRIDAY. Flora Lichtman, thank you to the giant bee collection that Dr. Rozen has as curator and professor of invertebrate zoology at the American Museum of National History in New York.

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