Desert Bees Have a Secret: How to Survive a Decade of Drought

Desert Bees Have a Secret: How to Survive a Decade of Drought

CLUSTER of leafcutter bees are foraging for nectar and pollen on an unseasonably hot May morning in Bandelier National Monument, in northern New Mexico. Tiny, with few bright markings, they don’t look like bees at first — more like dark-colored buzzy insects.

But Olivia Carril is excited to spot them on penstemon plants, whose pale purple flowers have bright magenta stripes that guide the leafcutters down their long tubes to the nectar, past the anthers for a dusting of pollen. She scoops a handful of bees into her net, then quickly transfers them to glass vials.

Until Carril, an independent scientist and co-author of a field guide to North American bees, began her survey a year ago, it was unknown how many bees were in Bandelier: Just two species had been documented in one part of the monument, which climbs from lush riparian zones to piñon-juniper foothills to alpine forests. But in just a year, she has added at least 46 species to the list.

The public often hears stories of bees at risk, with honeybees threatened by colony collapse disorder and the first U.S. mainland bee, the rusty patched bumblebee, listed as endangered in 2017. But scientists like Carril are showing that the picture is more complicated for native bees, raising a host of questions about widespread pesticide use, habitat loss, and climate change.

Desert bees have a unique set of strategies to survive harsh conditions. And bees are most diverse in arid environments the world over, suggesting their persistence during past eras of drought. Will their strategies prove sufficient in an era of anthropogenic climate change? Is there time to learn more about native bees before it’s too late?


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