It’s easy to miss the shiny face of Augochloropsis anonyma without a microscope — the bee grows to only about 8 millimeters long. But this iridescent bee native to the southeastern United States is one of the insects finally getting appreciation thanks to the unexpected popularity of technical documentation for monitoring bees.
Unlike birds or butterflies, the 4,000 or so bee species buzzing around the United States don’t have identification traits that amateur enthusiasts can spot without collecting specimens. “Basically you need dead bees and a microscope to play the game,” says Sam Droege, who runs the U.S. Geological Survey’s Bee Inventory and Monitoring Laboratory in Beltsville, Md. So efforts to look for trends in bee populations haven’t had help from a coast-to-coast network of savvy amateurs like those who have long recorded birds.
To encourage the subtle art of bee identification, Droege and his colleagues began posting identification keys and images of bee specimens to the photo website Flickr. To Droege’s surprise, the online gallery has already attracted over 27 million viewers. That’s not bad for pictures illustrating such technical points as “supraclypeal area shining and nearly impunctate.”
The bee specimen above was collected and photographed as part of an ongoing project to monitor how bees in 47 national parks respond to climate change. A. anonyma is a sweat bee, one of a variety of species that are attracted to human sweat. Scientists have not settled the question of what function the bees’ colorful luster might have.