Nature

Florida’s Long-Lost Rare Blue Bee Has Been Rediscovered

The Sunshine State’s iconic wildlife includes the American alligator, the Florida panther, the scrub jay and the manatee, and now, the ultra-rare Blue Calamintha bee. The rediscovered bee was so rare scientists doubted whether or not it even existed still. The bee was found again on March 9 by a Florida Museum of Natural History researcher named Dr. Chase Kimmel. The postdoctoral researcher and his advisor, Jaret Daniels, director of the museum’s McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity, both set out to determine the bee’s current population status, where it nests, and its feeding habits.

The last time the Blue Bee of Florida was observed was in 2016. Dr. Kimmel recorded it in three of its previously known locations and six additional places up to 50 miles away.

The Blue Calamintha bee, which depends on an endangered plant, was only ever recorded in four places in central Florida’s Lake Wales Ridge region. Kimmel was able to record the bee in multiple locations, some up to 50 miles away from each other, and he will now work on determining its range. The information he discovers could help get the bee protected under the Endangered Species Act.

According to Kimmel, it is too early to know if the bee will be registered on the endangered species list, because more research needs to be done. There’s still much to learn about the Blue Calamintha bee. Not much is known about the bee’s biology. The objective over the next year is to record the bee in as many locations as possible to determine its range and increase understanding of its biology

Not even the environment which it prefers. That’s easier said than done though as it’s such a rare insect to find, let alone study. Many believe something as rare as the Calamintha Blue Bee should be protected but oddly, it’s not on any environmental protection list or even state and federal protection. This species of bees, however, isn’t considered to be an endangered one, but rather a species in need of greatest conservation.

The ongoing research is funded by a Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission grant through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. This research falls under the grant’s qualifications to conserve important wildlife habitats and/or prevent species extinctions. “There was a lack of scientific information regarding the occurrence and life history of the bee [and more] information was needed to make an informed determination regarding the classification status for this species under the Endangered Species Act,” according to a spokesperson at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“I haven’t found the bee in a couple of weeks,” Kimmel said, adding “I’m coming up a bit short right now.” He explains this is probably because “the season is wrapping up right now.” Finding the bee in early March as he had, he explained, was a week before anyone had ever seen it based on past insect specimens. He posits that it was because “it was a very early spring this year. It was very dry.”

According to the Southeast Regional Climate Center’s data, this March was the second warmest start to spring in Orlando, and third-warmest start for Tampa; both cities are near Lake Wales Ridge. Overall, “there are good signs the bee can recover,” according to Kimmel, provided that the bee can be studied and conserved. “Having this bee in more abundance than what we expected is really encouraging for its survival.”

Some things we do know about the bee from what has been observed by Dr. Kimmel and Dr. Daniels is that the blue calamintha bee bobs its head back and forth to pick up as much pollen as possible with its unusual facial hairs. Daniels and Kimmel also want to determine whether it visits other flowers apart from Ashe’s calamint by studying the pollen collected from bees and using visual surveys. So far, they have recorded one instance of the bee using another floral host.

The blue calamintha is a solitary bee, creating individual nests instead of hives like honeybees. While no nests have been found, the species is part of the genus Osmia, which tends to use existing ground burrows, hollow stems or holes in dead trees as nests.

With COVID-19 causing shutdowns around the world, however, Daniels and Kimmel’s research has faced some setbacks. Kimmel initially received special permission from the University of Florida to continue working at the station, but the university’s prohibition on further travel prevented Daniels from joining Kimmel in the field. The timing of the shutdown is also unfortunate as the bee’s flight season from about the middle of March until early May is the best time to find live insects and determine its range.

With the help of some Florida Museum volunteers, conservation and research efforts are expected to continue with fieldwork at Archbold Biological Station and other parts of Lake Wales Ridge, but the pandemic has also suspended volunteer operations.Daniels and Kimmel are hopeful questions about the blue calamintha bee’s interaction with other insects and foraging behavior can be addressed when normal fieldwork resumes.

“All of this work is a collaboration,” Daniels said. “It takes an army to make it happen, you couldn’t do it without all the broader community of assistance that makes a project work to generate good results.”