The Milkweed Diaries

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

On Bees, Beauty, and Science

Osmia lignaria (Blue Orchard Bee), a native megachilid  bee that nests in holes and reeds
Growing up, I experienced science classes as irrelevant tedium, something to just try to get through with as little pain as possible. I remember being bored with science classes in elementary school, doing a lot of rote memorization in my high school chemistry, biology, and physics classes, and never having any interest in learning any more than I had to about science.

Something strange happened in college. To meet my minimum science requirements, sure that I would be suffering through more tedious memorization of numbers, rules, and formulas, I looked for the least boring, most "liberal artsy" of the science classes in the course catalog.  I signed up for Evolutionary Ecology and Cosmology and fell in love with both. 

Suddenly, science was fascinating, relevant, and useful.  It was tinged with mysticism and magic, and full of beauty and wonder. My two science professors, passionate about their fields of expertise, brought to life for me the science of life and of the cosmos. Evolution and ecology and the mysteries of the origins of the universe fascinated me.

But it was too late - I was already deep into my major and committed to thinking of science as something arcane, confusing, and dry -- something that belonged to science and math people, not to English majors like me. Those classes, I thought, were just odd diversions, strange aberrations, lucky breaks in my quest to knock out the core courses required for a liberal arts major to graduate.

Rachel Carson paying attention
Many years later, as a gardener and lover of the natural world, I came to feel ripped off.  Science is amazing. The universe and the planet are amazing, and science is one of the ways we witness and comprehend all of the wonder of the universe and the Earth. I wish that science classes in elementary school and high school had consisted of bird watching, making compost and studying worm bins, walks in the woods, animal tracking, night field trips with telescopes, and wading in the stream with a magnifying glass.

I especially regret not studying botany earlier in life, along with all of the life sciences - the studies of the amazing community of life on the planet--entymology, ornithology, zoology‎, microbiology, and so on.

So in small ways I've been trying to remedy my ignorance of science for years, and I've made more headway with plants than with other living things, but still feel woefully un-learned.  Carl Sagan and Rachel Carson have helped, and field guides, and smart friends, and just spending a lot of time outside in the natural world paying attention.

So when I get to look at a sweat bee under a microscope and see her back glittering iridescent green, a tiny, magical, shimmering, bejeweled surface invisible to the naked eye, it's an exciting day for me.

At the Organic Growers School last weekend I had a chance to do just that - at a class called "Meet the Bees," taught by Dr. Jill Sidebottom.  I sat next to my new blogger friend Rachel in Dr. Sidebottom's bee class, and we totally nerded out.  

Inspecting bees under the microscope

Agapostemon sericeus (Sweat Bee), courtesy of Bee Tribes of the World (bugsrus, York University)
-- similar to the emerald green sweat bee I studied under the microscope in "Meet the Bees."

Dr. Jill has been studying bees and insects sometimes mistaken for bees in Christmas tree fields, thanks to NC Extension (yay, my tax dollars at work!). She showed us a lot of specimens and put us through the paces with bee, wasp, and fly identification (I have a lot to learn, suffice to say).

The class deepened my love of the bumbling Bombus genus (Bumblebees!).  Bombus species, I learned from Dr. Jill, are excellent pollinators because they are big, hairy, clumsy, and loud.  The volume of their buzzing as they perch on the edge or hang out inside of a flower actually helps shake loose pollen, which then collects on their hairy bodies.

 Bombus terrestris (a Bumblebee species) courtesy of Wikipedia Commons
And I have a new appreciation for Sweat Bees. I love that they are shockingly, excessively beautiful in a way that is invisible to the naked eye. Certain Sweat Bees are downright "blingy" in the words of our instructor - iridescent, sparkly, exquisite, and glamorous up close. Seeing some of the members of the genus Agapostemon (Metallic Green Bees) under the microscope, you would think you must be looking at some rare and exotic insect. But it's just a pesky, common, tiny Sweat Bee.  Having seen their beauty up close, I know I'll think twice about swatting them this summer.

Rachel inspecting bees with a hand lens
Dr. Jill also shared some great sources of gorgeous photos of birds, bugs, and other natural wonders -- here are a few that live in Facebook world:

Thanks to Dr. Jill Sidebottom for a great introduction to all of the different kinds of bees in this part of the world, and thanks to the Organic Growers School for the chance to play at science!

PS/update 3/13: Thanks to Christina for sending me another amazing wild bee photo collection: the USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab's Flickr stream which includes hundreds of beautiful photos of bees. 


Dana said...

So many thanks you offer here! You're like those guys who win the races over at the Newport Motor Speedway in East TN. "I'd like to thank my wife. I'd like to thank Jesus too, and the good people of Newport. If it wasn't for the good people of Newport..."
The real thanks is thanks to you Bethy for hopping back on the Blog Wagon, so to speak. I like reading about your fresh enthusiasm for science. I am having a similar reaction to science in my adulthood. I recently splurged and purchased a Period Table of the Elements coffee mug, thinking I could gaze upon it whilst drinking my tea and possibly study up on some elemental groupings. But the flora and fauna remain my top jam. I was thinking about a little kingfisher nest hunting yesterday...Kingfishers kick butt.

Milkweed said...

It's like my science class Oscar acceptance speech, D. I have mug envy. And thanks for the carnivorous plant postcard! xo

Girl In An Apron said...

okay first, it was so so fun sitting next to you in this class, if anything to have a partner to make little joyous noises with (usually reserved for viewing a new baby) when introduced to an interesting slide or fact about our precious native pollinators. But I also related so much to this post, in grieving a bit for all the time spent (mainly in formal school settings) when we could have otherwise been discovering more about this awe-inspiring world of natural life. Thanks for keeping it real and reminding me of the importance of discovery, at any age! I think my blog recap of the class will be around on the OGS website soon, however this could have been it.

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