Sunday, March 03, 2013

Sevilleta! (Part one: Bee Wrangler)

Here begins a new series about the Sevilleta NWR, located a few miles north of Socorro and encompassing both sides of the Rio Grande, stretching from river bosque to high mesas, cliffs, and canyons on both "sides". It is unusual (among other reason)s because, unlike most National Wildlife Refuges, it is not generally open to the public except on special occasions, but restricted to researchers studying the ecosystem and its inhabitants. Virtually all remnant of human habitation other than the research station on the west side of the highway are gone; there is no grazing and a minimal web of dirt roads. It is as close to a "natural" northern Chihuahuan desert ecosystem as exists, and I have seen creatures there that I have been unable to find anywhere else.

A few years ago I had a contract to catch and mount all the native bees that fed on creosote bush in the refuge for my friend Karen Wetherill Wright. This job was even weirder than it sounds. Karen is New Mexico's bee expert and last I talked to her there were over 700 species native to the state, (not a few new to science, many of those described by her), ranging in size from about that of a fruit fly to big blue- black wood- nesting species larger than bumblebees. Though I am mildly sensitive to insect stings, nothing ever stung me; if you are a long time flying bug catcher , flipping the net and putting the end into a killing bottle was not hard, and since we used cyanide- impregnated plaster in our killing bottles instead of the useless but easily obtained smelly concoctions used by many amateurs, the insect barely had a chance to move. CATCHING was pure fun.

For anything that could simply be pinned, mounting was an easy process, at least if you are of an organizing cast of mind. But the arcane procedures for pinning the tiny ones begs for a Nabokov as its chronicler. For the very smallest, you had to cut triangles out of white paper and glue the specimen to its tip, making sure you obscured nothing, then pin the triangle. But the hardest were just a bit larger, still smaller than a house fly. In this genus you had to take the specimens from the freezer, wait until it thawed and "relaxed" so you could operate on it, then look at the wing veination to distinguish male from female. If the specimen was female, you just glued it lightly to the side of a pin, as they were too small to stick pins THROUGH. But if the specimen was a male, you glued it up, and when the glue was dry, you'd extract the male's genitals from the tip of its abdomen with a fine needle just to the point where they were still attached, so they would dry in that position. Like Nabokov's celebrated blue butterflies, the shape of each male's key would only open the "locks" on the females of one species, and it was sometimes the only visually different part. I pinned over a thousand through that July and August; suffice to say I could not do it today with Parkinson's. This box is merely a sample, and with largish bees at that.

Of course, being one of the privileged allowed to work behind the locked gates gave you contact with a lot more than your research subjects, and if you were the kind of person that wanted to do work there at all, it was like giving you the keys to the past. You just found new things everywhere you went. Focused on bees as we were, we found a big colony of Diadasia bees digging right in a road's surface. Diadasia look like the common (and exotic in the sense of non- native) honey bee, but there are no hierarchies; each female, in loose confederation with her sisters, digs a tunnel in bare ground and caps it with a sort of rounded chimney. This helped but did not vanquish predation or brood parasitism. Syrphid and other parasitic flies hovered over the colonies, awaiting their chances.

I also found a weird one: picking up an odd "bee" from the colony, I realized that, first; I had never seen an insect of any kind that was chopped off so sharply behind; and, second, that its antennae were leafy foliate structures like those of the more ornate scarab beetles. When I found out that it was a Rhippiphorid, that some thought they were beetles and some not; that they had a
"hypermetamorphosis", with five stages, some very odd, like the often parasitic Meloid beetles or a creepy alien out of a movie; and that little was known about them other than that they were brood parasites on bees, I decided to study them myself. I thought they might be mimics, because I had thought "mine" was a bee. The Sevilleta gave me a research permit, but my study was aborted when the only car I had that could go on a hundred mile commute, broke down...


Anonymous said...

Steve I asked Karen and she said that there are closer to 2000 species of bee native to New Mexico.

Steve Bodio said...

I am not surprised-- as I said I am way out of date-- haven't asked her the number in years!

When we started I believe there were fewer than 900, and about 50 were her discoveries!