Meet the Bee Expert who Helped Invent the BioBlitz

Sam Droege is known for his stunning close-up photography of bees, published in National Geographic (magazine and online), and featured also in the video on this post. He’ll be participating in the National Parks BioBlitz in Washington, D.C. this weekend, looking for bees, of course.

Droege is also the head of the bee inventory and monitoring program at the U.S. Geological Survey, and he and colleagues have been working since 2001 to catalog all the bee species in North America.

I wanted to interview him for the BioBlitz blog when I heard he was part of the team that invented the BioBlitz concept, 20 years ago, at the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens in the Washington area, a National Park. He talked about that, but then we were soon discussing bees.

You were there when the term “BioBlitz” was coined 20 years ago, in 1996. How did that come about?

I was working with Dan Roddy of the National Park Service at Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens. The problem there is that it’s not Yellowstone, right? Who would go to Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens to look at what kind of biodiversity might be there? How could we get something as basic as a list of natural species for a park that had no money, or didn’t have any cache that would attract people in?

That’s how Dan and I came up with the BioBlitz concept. We think anther person working there, Susan Rudy, came up with BioBlitz as the name for the project.

Our BioBlitz idea was that it should be an event. We would attract biologists with coffee, which is all it takes, and a whole bunch of other interesting ’ologists as well. The key was that they weren’t restrained, they were allowed to move back to their primitive state, the ancestral biologists who actually went out and tried to find things, instead of filling out forms, or gridding on a plot, or counting the number of tarsal segments and measuring them to within 15 microns.

The idea: Do what you do naturally — which of course is why they became biologists. Go out and find critters, or a plant, or a fungi, or an isopod, whatever it is that got you to be a biologist in the first place. The main thing we want to hear from you is, what did you find, and did you find anything that the Park should know about?

The rest was ancillary. We invited the public to assist and the media to tell the story. What we were trying to do was show people that even right in the middle of a city there is a lot of life, and a lot of really cool things. This is not a throwaway park because it doesn’t have bison or alligators roaming on it. It does have rare species that need to be protected.

I often imagine what the world would be like if we were to be reduced to the size of an ant. Imagine what a fascinating wilderness that would be, with animals a lot more bizarre and scary than we imagine.

We make these really high quality pictures of bees, and I when I show them to people and say, just think if these were the size of a Doberman, you would not have ignored bees all these years. If you saw them on Venus, for example, you would say, clearly those are alien. But when they are really small, it’s just like “Bug!” And people are very dismissive.

I heart Pickerelweed would read the bumper sticker on this bee as the female pictured here would only feed her babies pollen collected from the interior of marshes with blooming Pickerelweed. This one was collected as part of a survey of Indian Head Naval Base just south of Washington D.C. on the Potomac and, indeed they have freshwater tidal creeks filled with Pickerelweed. Photo taken by Wayne Boo. Image and courtesy of USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab.
I heart Pickerelweed would read the bumper sticker on this bee as the female pictured here would only feed her babies pollen collected from the interior of marshes with blooming Pickerelweed. This one was collected as part of a survey of Indian Head Naval Base just south of Washington D.C. on the Potomac and, indeed they have freshwater tidal creeks filled with Pickerelweed. Photo taken by Wayne Boo. Image and caption courtesy of USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab.


What was the big takeaway from the first BioBlitz?

We found quite a number of different species, including a bunch of rare plants and unusual insects. We had a lot of local people, including kids catching salamanders. The Park learned it had some special species and several biologsts who participated went on to develop relationships with the Park. That’s one of the outcomes of a BioBlitz we like to see, where scientists and Park staff are introduced to each other and relationships build from there.

Will you take part in the 2016 BioBlitz activities in Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens again?

I will, unless it is raining. I do bees now and bees don’t come out in the rain.

Let’s talk about what you do, the bees. Where will you be finding bees in the 2016 National Parks BioBlitz?

I will be working tomorrow [Friday, May 20] specifically around the Natural History Museum on the National Mall, where the Museum has replanted much of the grounds to native plants. I will be focusing on both native and nonnative bees using the Museum’s pollinator garden. I’ve looked at that for many years now, and have even published a little paper on the bees that are found there. Sadly, the focus of the paper was on an introduced species that was found there.

National Geographic has a small pollinator garden here at headquarters, several city blocks away from the Natural History Museum. I wonder if the pollinators in the Nat Geo garden are connecting with those in the Museum garden.

Well, through generational visit, I’m sure that they are.

We’ve even kept a beehive on the roof. Is that good or bad for native bees?

In general, it’s bad. If you were involved with education, or you just happened to be a fanatic honeybee person, you wanted for some reason honey from on top of your building — those would be reasons to have honeybees.

But if there is a notional reason that you are doing good for Washington, D.C.’s pollinators, then that would not really be a reason to put it up there, because our native species that are totally happy nesting in the little planters around the courtyard and even in the nooks and crannies of the sidewalks, they will take care of the pollination just fine.

And the imported honeybees might compete with them?

They will certainly compete. There may be times when they don’t, such as when there is an over-abundance of some flowering tree everyone can dip in to.

The thing about honeybees is that they are radical bees, in that their behavior, which we know a lot about – their hives, honey, their waxy cells – none of that occurs in the native species. The honeybee’s MO is, “we are going to gather a lot of resources, convert it to a long-term food source (honey), and that will get us through times when there’s not that much bloom.”

So in this way, they make it through the winter with their honey, and in the spring they just go bonkers, because that’s when most of the nectar and pollen are available. They build up their populations, and then they coast on that supplemental food the rest of the year.

Here is the problem: the rest of the year there is not nearly as much pollen and nectar sources, so they honeybees are subsidized by their honey, while the nonsubsidized native species are trying to claw out their existence in the mean streets of Washington, D.C. Then the honeybees, that have their honey, come out and grab the pollen and nectar available for the native bees.

There are some circumstances where you need honeybees in industrial agriculture, an almond crop, for example, when your opportunities for using native bee species as your pollinator source are nil to extremely low. But in lots of even agricultural situations, people are now using even native species.

I tell people, if they just love honeybees, go for it, they are not going to sink the Titanic. But if you think you are doing it because the Earth needs it, then you probably should think again about putting up a hive.

Are native species more resistant to the colony collapse disorder we hear so much about?

They are unaffected by it.

Because they don’t have hives?

Yes, and the good thing about radical nature of honeybee biology is that no native species in North America has that same biology, and the parasites, pathogens and pests that are whacking honeybees require a honeybee lifestyle. The native bees have such a different lifestyle that the problem pathogens cannot cross over. It is not an issue for the native bees.

What would you tell the people taking part in the BioBlitz they can do in their backyards to help the native bees?

They can do a lot. Their backyard is a bee refuge if they treat it like that. The very simple answer is to plant native blooming plants, so that you have blooms throughout the year. That’s it.

Other than feeling good that you did something for the native bees, what’s the upside for yourself of doing that?

If you’re looking for economic return, then you could think about how those bees would be pollinating whatever fruits and vegetables you had in your yard.

If you’re looking for a reward beyond dollars and cents, then just think how the diversity and beauty of flowers is mirrored in the beauty and diversity of the bees. Indeed, they are wonderful to look at. People just need to get a little lower down and spend a little time looking at them, and they will find that entire new hobby is laid out before them.

What do you call a person, a hobbyist, who looks at bees?

Crazy? (Laughs). The scientific study of bees has been termed melittology. But there are so few people who study bees that it really does not have a name.

If you’re at the #BioBlitz2016 in Washington tomorrow and Saturday, be sure to look out for Sam Droege. 

12418031_10153900711084116_8462971761216697621_nDavid Braun is director of outreach with the digital and social media team illuminating the National Geographic Society’s explorer, science, and education programs.

He edits National Geographic Voices, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society’s mission and major initiatives. Contributors include grantees and Society partners, as well as universities, foundations, interest groups, and individuals dedicated to a sustainable world. More than 50,000 readers have participated in 10,000 conversations.

Braun also directs the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship

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More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn