The La Brea Tar Pits in California are known for saber-toothed cats and mastodons but they also have insects. Recent examination of fossil leafcutter bee nest cells, led by Anna Holden of Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and colleagues, reveal insights into the habitat and climate at the La Brea Tar Pits toward the last Ice Age.
It’s no excuse to litter, but a new study has found that some bees use bits of plastic bags and plastic building materials to construct their nests. It’s an important discovery because it shows bees’ resourcefulness and flexibility in adapting to a human-dominated world, says Scott MacIvor, the study’s lead author. “Plastic waste pervades the global landscape,” said MacIvor. Although researchers have shown adverse impacts of the material on species and the ecosystem, few scientists have observed insects adapting to a plastic-rich environment, he said.
Figuring out that the bees were using plastics in place of natural materials took some detective work by Andrew Moore, of the University of Guelph, in Ontario, Canada. Moore analyzed a grey “goo” that MacIvor discovered in the nests of one kind of bee, Megachile campanulae, which uses plant resins to build its nests, “Scott thought it might be chewing gum originally,” Moore said. Turns out that M. campanulae was occasionally replacing plant resins with polyurethane-based exterior building sealant, such as caulking, in its brood cells–created in a nest to rear larva.
The researchers also discovered another kind of bee, Megachile rotundata, an alfalfa leafcutter, was using pieces of polyethylene-based plastic bags to construct its brood cells. The glossy plastic replaced almost one-quarter of the cut leaves normally used to build each cell. Markings showed that the bees chewed the plastic differently than they did leaves, suggesting that the insects had not incidentally collected plastic. Nor were leaves hard to find for the bees in the study. “The plastic materials had been gathered by the bees, and then worked — chewed up and spit out like gum — to form something new that they could use,” Moore said.
“The novel use of plastics in the nests of bees could reflect the ecologically adaptive traits necessary for survival in an increasingly human-dominated environment,” MacIvor said.
If you want to welcome some of the world’s great garden-helpers to your backyard, you need to build them a nice place to stay. Everyone thinks of bees as living in bee hives because honeybees do and honeybees are easily the world’s most famous bees.
But of the thousands of bee species, only a few make honey and live in hives. The rest are solitary bees.
Maybe the most popular type of solitary bees to have around are Mason bees. They are popular because they do a super job pollinating fruits, vegetables and flowers. They are also very mild and don’t sting unless they are handled roughly or get trapped underneath clothing.
There are more than a hundred kinds of Mason bees in North America. They work and live alone, although they don’t mind nesting right next door to other bees.
Mason bees build nests in long narrow holes that they find already made in their environment. These holes could be hollow plant stems or holes drilled by woodpeckers and insects in wood. The bees use mud to build chambers in the holes, then lay an egg in each chamber. Before sealing up the chamber, they leave a dab of pollen and nectar in each for the larva to eat when it hatches.
When the young bees have matured enough in the spring, they’ll bust out of their mud chambers and eventually come to the front of the hole to warm up a bit before flying off to begin the entire cycle again.
When the bees do fly off, the first thing they’ll be looking for is a home. You can help by building them a solitary bee house.
Following the easy directions below, and with just a little help from your folks, you can build a solitary bee house over the winter and have it in place by March or April. Be sure to mount it solidly somewhere out of the rain facing South or East since the little bees need some sunlight to get them going when they emerge.
And remember, building the bee house is just the beginning of the fun and your research. You’ll need to see who shows up and moves in. Get pictures if you can. And by all means, take notes and hold onto them so you can build on your store of observational knowledge year over year.
Here are some questions to get you started:
How many different kinds of bees use your solitary bee house? Simply knowing the number of different kinds is useful, but if you want to dig in and get very, very specific, there’s help: www.DiscoverLife.org
How many of the tubes get sealed off with mud? Does one size (diameter) seem more popular with the bees in your neighborhood. Develop a hypothesis about what size tubes will attract the most bees next year. Test it.
What kind of mud do the bees use to seal chambers? During periods of high activity, put out trays of different kinds of mud to see if the bees have a preference. Does putting mud close to the bee house increase the trip rate of bees (say, three trip every minute instead of two trips a minute)? By how much?
How to Build a Solitary Bee House
Fun Phineas Facts
We’ve noted the many good qualities of Mason Bees and said they are non-aggressive and unlikely to cause much trouble in the stinging department. It natural for anyone who has been stung by a bee to suspicious of anything with a stinger. Classification – organizing things into orderly categories – is a basic part of good science, and you can practice on “bees.” Even while running away. The first step is to try to avoid calling everything that might deliver a “bee sting” a “bee.”
Do you mean Bee or Wasp? Or Yellowjacket? Or Hornet? The differences matter, since some stinging insects are classified as flower-lovers and others as predators (although, of course, not of humans!). Here is a link to a good article from the Cooperative Extension service at Colorado State University to get you started thinking about the differences.Wasp-Hornet-Yellowjacket-Bee?
One of the best ways to distinguish between types of flying insects with stingers is to notice where they live. If the insect in question lives in a honey-filled wooden box on a honey farm, that’s an easy one. If it lays eggs in the bee house you construct, that narrows it down, too. Here is an article that has a great chart about other types of insect housing you might encounter. How to Tell the Difference Between the Stinging Wasps.
If you’ve ever handled a freshly cut Christmas tree or spent an afternoon climbing a neighborhood pine, you know that trees can get pretty sappy. Part of the healing process for a tree that loses a limb or gets a cut in its bark is to fill in the damaged area with sticky, gooey, sappy resin.
This helps the tree form something like a scab. The scab keeps out bad things (like germs) and keeps in good things (like water).
While this excellent healing process is great for the tree, it can be pretty crummy for insects that come along and get stuck in the sap.
But that is not the end of the story.
Fast forward a few million years, and the scientist of today can find well-preserved insect fossils still in the sappy resin. By this time the resin has turned into a fossil itself, called amber.
Researchers have found all kinds of ancient insects in amber, and have found frogs, flowers, lizards, even the bones of small mammals and animal hair. For scientists studying creatures that are mostly long gone, amber adds up to a real treasure trove.
Recently, scientists at Oregon State University have been studying a rare amber fossil that trapped a spider just as it was attacking a wasp that had just gotten stuck in the spider’s web. The spider was moving in for the kill when resin covered the web, freezing them both for all time. Talk about your sticky situations.
Fossil: the remains or impression of something that was alive in prehistoric times, now preserved in rock
Resin: a thick substance that flows from some types of pine trees
Amber: fossilized resin
Mammal: warm-blooded animals with hair or fur that fed their young milk