The Squash Bee is Discovered in Oregon!
The fact that I get guff for teaching kindergartners all about bees makes me sad. The fact that a group of my mini minions helped discover a bee that has been eluding state and federal agricultural scientists, for quite a while now, makes me very happy. Let me explain why.
The reason I work with kids is simple, I want them to grow up to be warrior scientist bee nerds. Seeing as how my bee obsession started at the age of three, I don’t think kindergarten is too young to teach kids about soil biology, ultraviolet bee/flower communication, pollen polarity, and honey density. These are just a few of the hands-on lessons that my littles would experience in my ScienceWorks “Secret Life of Bees” summer camp that I have led for the last few years.
On a sunny June afternoon in 2016 my campers and I crossed the parking lot form the museum to The Farm at Southern Oregon University to play around in our beehives and catch and ID some bees on the farm. My littles waddled up to a few rows of squash plants and were so excited when they peered inside a large creamy orange blossom. “Shhh… she’s sleeping,” one said. “That honey bee is flat!” another one said. “Oh no!” I exclaimed, thinking their over-eager fingers had squished one. I craned over for a closer look, and inside of the flower was a squash bee, Peponapis pruinosa!
I was familiar with this bee after having stumbled into a flurry of them in squash plants at sunrise outside an AirBnB in Philadelphia earlier that spring. Indeed, they do resemble a honey bee. But to someone who obsessively looks at honey bees all day, I could tell this was something different, and I googled up an ID.
This stripped, golden nugget of fuzz most likely evolved with a native wild gourd, Cucurbita foetidissima, that only grows in Mexico and parts of the southern united states. However, as settlers colonized the rest of the US, and began to farm cultivated squash, Cucurbita pepo, the squash bee followed! Dr. Margarita López-Uribe does a great job of explaining this migration in her YouTube video here.
As you can see from the map in her video, Oregon is not on the list of states where the squash bee had been discovered. I had seen the video after I found the Peponapis, in Ashland, with my students, but honestly didn’t think I had any business telling anyone about it. Why? First, I come from the honey bee world, so why would anyone in the native bee world care what I had to say? Second, contrary to popular belief, I don’t have a PhD. In my head this means, “You’re not a real scientist and don’t have the right to make this kind of discovery.” And third, who would I tell, anyway?! I had zero clue who I would even contact to talk about it. Would I ring up the USDA and say, “Hey there! My name is Bee Girl and myself and a small handful of kindergarteners just found a bee that’s been eluding you for some time now!”
Maybe I should have; but I didn’t.
So. I sat with this knowledge and continued to obsessively pull apart squash blossoms to fawn over this handsome bee, waiting for the “right” people to discover it.
This was until I attended the Oregon Bee Project’s “Bee School” last summer. This was a bee taxonomy course offered at Oregon State University in Corvallis, taught by lead bee taxonomist Lincoln Best. The main goal of the course is to equip the rising tide of community scientists with the bee identification tools they need to add data to the “Oregon Bee Atlas.” I took the course to get some expert tips on bee ID for my ODOT Pollinator Project. Yes - I’ve expanded beyond the honey bee world and into the native bee world now.
About halfway through the course Linc announced that one of the students working in the Oregon State Arthropod Collection (OSAC) with him had discovered the first Peponapis in Oregon.
You see, my competitive fires had been lit ablaze earlier in the course during a yelling match with one of the co-instructors on the “are honey bees the absolute worst?” debate (this is a debate that honey bee people and native bee people have these days). Though I am solidly planted on the fence between the native bee nerd squad and the honey bee nerd squad these days, I will never – ever – see honey bees as the worst threat to native bees, broadly speaking. My first love was the honey bee, and I will never not advocate for her. Do beekeepers need to be conscious of solitary and bumble bees, and the potential effects beekeeping can have on wild landscapes and bee populations? Absolutely! Are honey bees “the worst” compared against habitat loss, climate change, pesticides, and disease (eh hem, west coast introduction of Bombus impatiens)? NO! Anyhoo…
So, as Linc announced that someone without their own lab (and without some kind of uniform consisting of a beaker, coke-bottle glasses, and a mustache) had discovered the first squash bee, I blurted out, “Oh! Hell no! I found it!! It was me! I’ve been watching them for YEARS! This discovery is MINE!”
Not my most professional moment.
He challenged me to submit a specimen to him for proof. I sat at the edge of my seat for the rest of the week, anxious to fire down to Southern Oregon and scour the town for my beloved squash bee, so I could be handed the fanciful blue ribbon of legitimacy.
And that I did. I found one in BGO Board President Mariah Moser’s community garden plot, plunked him into a vile, and off he went to the OSAC.
In the meantime, the “other bee” sent in by the OSAC student turned out to be a Melissodes (not a squash bee - cue diabolical laughter). Once my bee was in the hands of Mr. Best, and Dr. Chris Marshall, OSAC Curator, it was officially “determined” (verified). The next step for them was to painstakingly research insect collections across the US to be sure this was, in fact, the first Peponapis pruinosa discovered in the state of Oregon.
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, we have a winner. Please click here to read the publication.
The moral of this story is to never underestimate yourself, your curiosity, or your passion. Even if you feel you don’t belong, or have no place speaking up, you do.
Also, I can’t stress enough the importance of community science initiatives. As funding for the biological sciences withers, the professionals need all the extra hands, ears, and eyes that they can get! And might I mention, getting outside, and getting kids outside, is imperative to the survival of our bees. We have to form a close, loving relationship with our soil, bees, and everything else that buzzes, creeps, strides, and flies at a young age. Then renew that love as often as possible. When you engage in a community science initiative, you not only connect with the outdoors, you build human relationships, and you provide needed data that will inform current and future research, funding, and policy decisions.
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
― Margaret Mead