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Famous Native Bee Lab and its Greenbelt Volunteers

Not far from Greenbelt, located inside the Patuxent Wildlife Research Refuge, is this humble little laboratory – the Native Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab – that’s internationally famous among entomologists, ecologists and an assortment of nature-loving professionals and amateurs, too. It’s led by Sam Droege (rhymes with “hoagie”), a wildlife biologist with the Eastern Ecological Science Center, which works with other agencies and many partners on this important project.

The primary work of the Bee Lab is to survey native bees, using bee ID tools that it invents, that’s produced its growing collection of “accurate and detailed pictures of native bees and the plants and insects they interact with.”  So far, it’s gathered over 5,200 ultra hi-res, public domain on its Flickr site. which offers free, easy access to amazing photographs of native bees. There is no need to ask for permission for any use of these photographs.

Examples of the ultra-high res bee photos produced by the Lab. There are still more on the Lab’s Instagram account, with over 26,000 followers. (That account also includes plant photos.) 

The Lab’s microscopic photography produces accurate bee identification that “allows for better monitoring of bee species and examination of environmental factors that may influence their populations,” according to the lab’s website. Basic research like this supports native bee conservation by providing critical data and tools for the US and other countries.

Identifying the Bees

Most native bees are too small to be accurately identified while they’re supping on their favorite plants; they need to be captured, washed, and prepared to be examined and photographed under a microscope – like the one you see being used in the next photo.

Sam explained to me that the identification of bees is a “bottleneck in science.”  The Bee Lab database now holds more than 700,000 specimens, about four times the number identified by iNaturalist, but it still has a long way to go. Sam is also working on a special “Bees of Maryland” collection – did you know that Maryland is home to about 400 species of native bees, including 14 species of bumblebees? And he’s created dozens of videos that teach bee identification using a microscope.

Though wasps and flies are also good pollinators, the Lab’s narrow focus is on bees – the native ones. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has a lab studying European honey bees.

Documenting Bee-Plant Interactions

But the Lab’s work now goes far beyond bee identification to the study of which plants are visited by which native bees, and how often – which is not such easy info to acquire. (By comparison, documenting which plants butterflies alight on is pretty easy.) Sam tells me that “Netting bees is a highly tuned skill.”

One method used here is to set up cameras near plants growing around the Lab, with photos taken by a timer at 30-second intervals. The plants studied are perennials, which are mostly grown from seed, allowing for the great genetic diversity, and some shrubs that so far are reproduced via cloning, yielding somewhat less diversity.

Some of the interactions or lack thereof are a surprise. For example, milkweed is not very useful for bees because bees need pollen to raise their young and milkweed’s pollen is not accessible to them. Two common plants that are very good for bumblebees are black-eyed Susans and Monarda, while dandelions are not.

Sam recommends we check out “Ask a Bumblebee.”

Local Volunteers from Greenbelt and Elsewhere

Greenbelt volunteer Catherine Plaisant, on the left, observes bee identification work in the lab.

The Lab doesn’t run on just two employees but is aided by interns, including ones from Eleanor Roosevelt High School, and many local volunteers, including Catherine Plaisant, who arranged for my tour and interview with Sam. She’d first visited the lab with the Maryland Native Plant Society, and started volunteering there in the fall of 2021.

Catherine tells me that volunteers primarily help with growing the diverse collection of plants needed for the Lab’s study of plant-bee association. She writes:

The work has been quite varied, from collecting seeds, growing plants, planting them, building hoops or benches, to weeding or pulling invasives. One of the most fun volunteer days was a visit to the germplasm center in BARC, to collect woody plant cuttings for propagation. It’s been fun to learn to prepare the seeds for winter stratification and sowing, but also extremely useful to have the use of greenhouse hoops to grow seedlings in the spring, and later to work along other volunteers to transplant seedlings to pots. Of course we learn about new plants every week, either by exchanging tips with other volunteers, or by seeing bees buzzing around what is planted at the Bee Lab.

Sam emails volunteers in advance as to the jobs the Bee Lab needs help with every week during the regular volunteer hours – Thursday afternoons and Saturday mornings.
More from Catherine:
During the first year I observed some of the volunteers growing plants there on the Lab grounds for planting in their own community projects. One volunteer grows plants for a large community garden run by the Anne Arundel Master Gardeners, and has grown 3,000 plants in 2023 alone for their various projects. Another volunteer working mostly alone is growing plants for a large retention pond in Bowie. Other small teams come from College Park or Laurel.
Having never grown any plant from seed myself, I was inspired, and after a year simply helping the Lab and observing, I started a team we named the “Greenbelt Seedbox Team” with Peggy Eskow and John Klinovsky. We continue to help the Bee Lab but also work on our own plants, and currently have about 1,100 plants growing in an automatically watered pen, which we will plant in the fall in the GHI pocket gardens for which we have a volunteer caretaker agreement in place.

Volunteers Anywhere can be Citizen Scientists

People who don’t live close enough to volunteer at the Lab can still help – by surveying bee-plant connections in their own gardens and contributing the information to the Lab’s database. Volunteers use a new protocol for gardens at the Lab or anywhere –  “How to Catch and Identify Bees and Manage a Collection – A Collective and Ongoing Effort by Those Who Love to Study Bees in North America.”

Sam explains that home gardens are good sites for doing research because they have lots of flowers. Volunteers set up their cameras (even iPhones) near some native plants in bloom, set the timer to take a shot every 30 seconds, and simply count the bees landing on the flowers. Last year 1,000 surveys were submitted by citizens, mostly in the Northeast of the U.S., though the Lab wants data from everywhere.

And Sam urges gardeners everywhere to just plant more flowers to help pollinators. He suggests they check this list of flowers and shrubs that are “suitable for pollinators in your area.”

Around the Bee Lab

Sam Droege talking about the ground cherry he’d just planted in a pot, Ground cherry is host to three very specialized bees, so without that plant, they’re gone.

A very cool new crevice garden.

The bog garden.

Rudbeckia of some kind.

My plant ID app tells me this is Yellow Loosestrife.

In this shot I can identify some Joe Pye Weed and Monarda.

My app isn’t sure whether this is a prairie coneflower (Ratibida pinnata) or a type of rudbeckia.

Follow Susan Harris:
Susan started blogging about Greenbelt soon after moving here in 2012, and that blog has grown into this nonprofit community website. She also created and curates the Greenbelt Maryland YouTube channel. In 2021 Susan joined the Board of Directors of Greenbelt Access TV. Retired from garden writing and teaching, she continues to blog weekly at GardenRant.com.

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