My summer as a bee wrangler

I was corresponding with Jessica, who sends me great books on birds from Princeton Press (THE best ornithological publisher), when we strayed into bees. (She sent me this excellent book on North American bumblebees). It later occurred to me that my note to her might interest readers of the blog.

I spent a summer not long ago- 6 years past?– collecting native bee species at the Sevilleta reserve, hundreds if not thousands, and mounting and labelling them, for money.

The hardest part was mounting the microbees a quarter of an inch long– too small to pin. I would take them out of the freezer to “relax”, in this case thaw; determine sex (wing venation– if you look below the box in the pic you will see my “guide”); glue them to the side of a pin; then after the glue dried and before the bee did, expose the genitalia of the males, the only way to tell some species apart–! (If you don’t believe me read Nabokov on his butterflies). I sat in front of the air conditioner with a bottle of chilled Russian vodka, a stack of 35 mm film canisters full of frozen bees, and a sheet of labels, and just locked down until I had at least a full box.

It was interesting work in some of the best desert I know, for good money, work I can no longer do since Parkinsonism makes me too clumsy, but it sure made for some odd bar and party conversation!

Sevilleta! (Part one: Bee Wrangler)

Here begins a new series about the Sevilleta NWR, located a few miles north of Socorro and encompassing both sides of the Rio Grande, stretching from river bosque to high mesas, cliffs, and canyons on both “sides”. It is unusual (among other reason)s because, unlike most National Wildlife Refuges, it is not generally open to the public except on special occasions, but restricted to researchers studying the ecosystem and its inhabitants. Virtually all remnant of human habitation other than the research station on the west side of the highway are gone; there is no grazing and a minimal web of dirt roads. It is as close to a “natural” northern Chihuahuan desert ecosystem as exists, and I have seen creatures there that I have been unable to find anywhere else.

A few years ago I had a contract to catch and mount all the native bees that fed on creosote bush in the refuge for my friend Karen Wetherill Wright. This job was even weirder than it sounds. Karen is New Mexico’s bee expert and last I talked to her there were over 700 species native to the state, (not a few new to science, many of those described by her), ranging in size from about that of a fruit fly to big blue- black wood- nesting species larger than bumblebees. Though I am mildly sensitive to insect stings, nothing ever stung me; if you are a long time flying bug catcher , flipping the net and putting the end into a killing bottle was not hard, and since we used cyanide- impregnated plaster in our killing bottles instead of the useless but easily obtained smelly concoctions used by many amateurs, the insect barely had a chance to move. CATCHING was pure fun.

For anything that could simply be pinned, mounting was an easy process, at least if you are of an organizing cast of mind. But the arcane procedures for pinning the tiny ones begs for a Nabokov as its chronicler. For the very smallest, you had to cut triangles out of white paper and glue the specimen to its tip, making sure you obscured nothing, then pin the triangle. But the hardest were just a bit larger, still smaller than a house fly. In this genus you had to take the specimens from the freezer, wait until it thawed and “relaxed” so you could operate on it, then look at the wing veination to distinguish male from female. If the specimen was female, you just glued it lightly to the side of a pin, as they were too small to stick pins THROUGH. But if the specimen was a male, you glued it up, and when the glue was dry, you’d extract the male’s genitals from the tip of its abdomen with a fine needle just to the point where they were still attached, so they would dry in that position. Like Nabokov’s celebrated blue butterflies, the shape of each male’s key would only open the “locks” on the females of one species, and it was sometimes the only visually different part. I pinned over a thousand through that July and August; suffice to say I could not do it today with Parkinson’s. This box is merely a sample, and with largish bees at that.

Of course, being one of the privileged allowed to work behind the locked gates gave you contact with a lot more than your research subjects, and if you were the kind of person that wanted to do work there at all, it was like giving you the keys to the past. You just found new things everywhere you went. Focused on bees as we were, we found a big colony of Diadasia bees digging right in a road’s surface. Diadasia look like the common (and exotic in the sense of non- native) honey bee, but there are no hierarchies; each female, in loose confederation with her sisters, digs a tunnel in bare ground and caps it with a sort of rounded chimney. This helped but did not vanquish predation or brood parasitism. Syrphid and other parasitic flies hovered over the colonies, awaiting their chances.

I also found a weird one: picking up an odd “bee” from the colony, I realized that, first; I had never seen an insect of any kind that was chopped off so sharply behind; and, second, that its antennae were leafy foliate structures like those of the more ornate scarab beetles. When I found out that it was a Rhippiphorid, that some thought they were beetles and some not; that they had a
“hypermetamorphosis”, with five stages, some very odd, like the often parasitic Meloid beetles or a creepy alien out of a movie; and that little was known about them other than that they were brood parasites on bees, I decided to study them myself. I thought they might be mimics, because I had thought “mine” was a bee. The Sevilleta gave me a research permit, but my study was aborted when the only car I had that could go on a hundred mile commute, broke down…

Art, Science, Insect Hunting, and Nabokov

John Wilson’s butterfly photos remind me of one of the great neglected stories of 20th century intellectual life; that Vladimir Nabokov was not just a writer and teacher but a great taxonomist, this despite being denigrated as a dilettante in his time.

Joseph Conrad is legitimately revered for becoming a great English novelist in his second language but the prickly and egotistical Nabokov is not always grated the same status. Yet he wrote as well in English as he did in Russian (and French) and will be remembered for everything from Lolita (one of the three great fifties “Road” books– search earlier posts) to, at a minimum, the poignantly funny Pnin, the pioneeringly PoMo but accessible Pale Fire, The Gift (first written in Russian, with butterflies, unlike the others) and the autobiographical Speak, Memory. His sometimes perverse but minutely analytical lectures on writers Russian and not are IMAO priceless for other writers and students of literature. Not bad for a repeatedly exiled refugee…

He also collected and studied butterflies all his life. His studies of the widespread little “Blues”, which he carried on at Harvard, were often dismissed during his lifetime. Using traditional taxonomic methods of close observation and measurement (he was particularly fascinated by the “lock and key” variations in butterfly genitalia*), he developed a theory suggesting that the Blues came over the Bering Straits to Alaska from Asia and spread south to the Andes, branching and diversifying as they went.

He was right, as recent DNA studies have shown. And here is a more “literary” treatment.

Two good books cover the whole background, though both came out before his vindication: Nabokov’s Blues, which tells of his years of study, and the omnibus Nabokov’s Butterflies.

And here are a couple of local blues from John Wilson, who started the ball rolling… the western pygmy blue, Brephidium exile, and the Acmon blue, Plebejus acmon

*This is not as unusual as one might think. A few summers ago I had a contract to collect hundreds of micro bees at the Sevilleta refuge and mount each one with extracted but attached genitalia displayed. I think it is safe to add this was BEFORE Parkinson’s! Got many geek points for discussing such at parties with my boss, the lovely Karen (Wetherill) Wright, below in two guises after sample bee box and me as bee wrangler….

Two old (or old- fashioned) naturalists, and new photo series

Two old farts in the bar courtyard. John Wilson is an old style bug catching (or photographing) “stamp collector” naturalist like me, an Ohioan who retired from an Audubon sanctuary there to a remote homestead in the Mags– somebody I can talk bugs, birds, and taxonomy with! Luckily he likes beer too. I am starting a local insect of the week photo with him though I expect as it gets colder it will become feeder bird or plant or…?

Painted Lady, Vanessa cardui, at 7000 feet in November:

Fabre and Japan

This is not an analysis of the real importance, ignored these days except in Japan, of the pioneering ethologist of insects, the 19th century Provencal autodidact Jean Henri Fabre, who started life as a peasant kid herding sheep in the harsh hills of his home country, and later single- handedly invented the study of insect behavior while more or less foreshadowing the work of such 20th century greats as Konrad Lorenz and Niko Tinbergen. Suffice to say that the only personal artifact of Charles Darwin’s I have ever handled was a straightforward fan letter from him to Fabre! Here is another– there were several– that even mentions homing pigeons!

Fabre is honored in his home town, Serignan de Comtat, in the wine country near Orange and the Rhone and Mont Ventoux, which has its own fascinating history. I visited that rather non- touristy northern part of Provence in the Nineties, and have have written about birds of prey and boar hunters and food and such there; a few of those essays are in On the Edge of the Wild. But I went there with a mission: to research Fabre, and make a pilgrimage to “L’Harmas”, his house, garden, and lab, like Darwin’s in England still preserved as though he had just stepped out for a minute.

But my fan worship, and Darwin’s, paled beside that of the Japanese. I was warned, but still amazed by the arrival of a tour bus. In addition to being a student of insects Fabre was a Provencal patriot, almost a separatist, and not only spoke that odd old dialect so similar to the one my grandparents, born only a hundred- some miles to the east, did, but dressed as a Provencal herder all his days– black cowboy hat (still sitting on his bench–I tried it on) and long black cloak like a cape, boots. He just added a butterfly net.

So did the Japanese. A westerner could only stare, amazed, as a bus load of thirty or so tourists disembarked at L’Harmas, in age from about 8 to 80, male and female, each and every one in full old fashioned south- of France cowboy kit, hat and cloak and all, plus nets– and cameras. As this was the pre- digital era we are talking big SLR’s with long lenses too!

Turns out the cult of Fabre is still alive in Japan 20 years later. First see this essay: “In France, with the exception of men of letters and entomologists, few have heard of Fabre. That oft-used contemporary yardstick of recognition, Google, counts 5,670 web pages in French for Souvenirs Entomologiques and 227,000 pages for Konchuki, its title in Japanese. Perhaps there is no Japanese who has not heard of Fabre… Japanese grade schoolers know more of Souvenirs Entomologiques than do French adults.”

He is alive in every popular medium there; here is an “Edu- Manga”; a cartoon bio; here and here, two Anime characters based on him.

But I was alerted to the best by another clue in the article I quoted above: “Their [the Japanese] familiarity with the French scientist’s life work is being exploited by Seven Eleven. The convenience store chain brought out this summer a Souvenirs Entomologiques series of limited edition gifts attached to the necks of soft drink bottles.. The series comprises eight pieces — seven insects and a figurine of Fabre observing Minotaur beetles in a device of his invention.”

How could I resist? It took some emails to Thailand and “Formosa”, but I ended up with one famous Fabre insect, the “Carabe Doree”, and Fabre himself, so detailed that his magnifying glass has a lens!

What is more, the appearance of Monsieur Fabre seems to indicate that his Asian fans respect and acknowledge his home culture. In Provence, the tradition of portraying all the professions of the country as Christmas creche figures, “Santons”, lives on, and when I was there I bought several. See the character leaning over Fabre’s shoulder? He is a local hunter, a “chasseur de Provence”, complete with double gun.

Cool Bug

A South American treehopper sent to Q by Jonathan Hanson, who writes: “… It was posted by a herpetologist (and virtuoso violinist) friend of ours, Robert Villa, on Facebook. The description offered by a friend of his who has collected them was: ‘It is a treehopper, Cyphonia trifidia ; cicadas lack the pronotal expansions along with various other characters. This is a pretty common South American membracid; I’ve actually collected a ton of these guys over the years.’ “

Carel’s Beetle

About a year ago, before chaos struck (or at least was diagnosed), Libby commissioned Carel Pieter Brest van Kempen to do a watercolor for my birthday. Someone asked if it would be a raptor. I was almost offended- every falconer in the world is inundated with such images. Given Carel’s eclectic tastes, I opted for a favorite insect– the desert meloid known as a spider beetle. Here is a preserved specimen:

And here is the perfect lively painting:

Almost a review

Libby recently read Jeff Lockwood’s Locust.

Her letter to him is as good as a short review, and the last line could be a blurb:

“I thoroughly enjoyed Locust. My favorite period of US history is the opening of the west during the 1800’s. When I was a kid we took many family trips to the southwest and up and down the Rockies, passing through the dozens of Mormon communities along the way. We used to talk about the difference the irrigation made in settlers being able to sustain themselves and their livestock. In some of our reading there were references to the locust plagues and we wondered why they weren’t mentioned after a certain point. The link between irrigation and the life stages of the locust is fascinating, and explains a lot. And I always wondered about the place names like Grasshopper Glacier and Grasshopper Creek, far away from the plains that I associated with grasshoppers, which it turns out weren’t grasshoppers but locusts.

“Thank you for such a splendid account…history, mystery, and natural history: my favorite combination in reading!”