Detailed Macrophotography of Megachile fortis by the USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab

A special exhibit at the Museum of the Earth is dedicated to the interesting yet unknown lives of bees. The exhibit, ‘Bees! Diversity, Evolution and Conservation,’ will be open until June 2020 and takes a deep dive into the world of solitary bees.

 Bryan Danforth, a professor of entomology at Cornell University, served as the technical advisor for the exhibit and spoke about how the idea of the exhibit came to fruition. 

“It was part of a grant from the National Science Foundation [NSF] that was written back in 2014,” Danforth said. “The project was focused on bee evolution, understanding the origins of bees from the crabronic wasps, and understanding big picture bee evolution using phylogenetic data. There are two criteria for NSF proposals; one is scientific merit and one is broader impact. By broader impacts, NSF is looking for ways you can amplify the research you are doing and educate people who are not in academics, who aren’t your colleagues from other universities.”

Danforth later partnered with Robert Ross, associate director for outreach for the Paleontological Research Institute, to create the exhibit. The exhibit is dynamic, as people will learn about the numerous types of bees, especially those less commonly recognized. Since the honey and bumblebees are social bees, this exhibit works with the bees people may not be as familiar with. 

“When you talk about bees, people typically think about honey bees and bumblebees,” Danforth said. “They think of the bees they are most familiar with and those bees are social. The reason people think about those bees is they do things they like, such as make honey in the case of honey bees. They also tend to be much more aggressive than solitary bees. They defend their colony, they have hundreds of workers that could come out and sting you. Humans pay attention to those things cause we don’t really like getting stung. We pay a lot of attention to the social bees because their aggressive and they make their presence known.”

According to Danforth, solitary bees account for a larger fraction of bee diversity. He’s estimated that social bees account for ten percent of all bees on Earth, while solitary bees comprise about 77 percent of bee diversity with the remaining 13 percent being social parasites. Social parasites are bees that don’t build nests or forage for pollen, rather they infiltrate the nest of other bees to lay their eggs there. One particularly unique aspect of the exhibit is an insect called Wallace’s Giant Bee. 

“This is the largest known bee on Earth,” Danforth said. “It occurs in a small number of islands in Indonesia. It’s called “Megachile pluto” and the first specimens of this bee were collected by Alfred Russel Wallace in the 1800s. They were brought back to England and described by entomologists back in England. This is a massive bee and we didn’t know much about it’s biology until a guy named Adam Messer traveled to Indonesia to study these bees. He discovered that they nest in arboreal termite nests. These are resin bees, they borough into the arboreal termite nests and line the tunnel with resins that they collect from plants. Then they  provision themselves with pollen and fruit nectar and then lay an egg.”

Bee display

One of the Museum of the Earth's displays. 

Some of the challenges in getting the exhibit to come together where getting visuals and establishing some of the other elements, though it has clearly paid off. Part of the exhibit, that’s more for kids, examines the other pollinators as well. 

As people walk through the exhibit, they learn about the origins of bees and can examine a cross-section of a bee. The exhibit also looks at how the symbiotic relationship flowers and bees have developed since the dawn of time, PRI’s Director of Exhibitions Helaina Blume said. There are several fossil specimens tucked away since they are encased in amber, which is delicate to sunlight. She also said patrons can get a look at a representative from each of the 28 different subfamilies of bees, which are accompanied by a brief description of the family. 

She went on to say that the exhibit has several videos for people to watch showing the lives of certain bees, a bevy of different specimens to view through a microscope, some of which are on loan from the Museum of Natural History in New York City, and a unique sound cone that, when a person stands under it, get the intimate feeling of being ensconced in bees. Patrons are able to visit the exhibit anytime from now until it closes in June 2020.  More information about the exhibit can be found on PRI’s website.


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