Rare Blue Metallic Bees Found in Florida
Some Florida researchers and experts thought the ultra-rare metallic navy-blue bee, first described in 2011, had disappeared completely since none had been seen in years.
And then it happened. The Florida Museum of Natural History reported on March 9, 2020 that researcher Chase Kimmel found a blue calamintha bee, or Osmia calaminthae. According to the museum, it was the first sighting since 2016 of this solitary bee that creates individual nests instead of hives. No nests have been found yet, but the species is part of the genus Osmia which usually use hollow stems, holes in dead trees, or existing ground burrows as nests.
Kimmel stated that they observed a shiny little blue bee that grabbed an Ashe’s calamint flower and rubbed its head on the top of the flower 2-3 times. This unusual behavior is a unique characteristic of the blue calamintha bee, which has the unusual attribute that it collects pollen on its face using facial hairs, according to the museum. The blue calamintha bee bobs its head back and forth when visiting flowers to pick up as much pollen as it can with these unique facial hairs.
This 3:45-minute video shows both the blue metallic bee and the rare flowers where these bees forage:
This bee depends on a threatened flowering plant that is primarily found in a central Florida habitat at Lake Wales Ridge that has an ancient history, according to the museum. Long ago when most of what is now the Sunshine State of Florida was underwater, sand dunes at higher elevations were like islands in the Central Florida Ridge. This produced isolated habitats with specialized plants and animals, like the blue calamintha bee. Now this region, which is identifiable by scattered patches of pine scrub among orange groves along US Route 27, is a threatened and disappearing ecosystem.
Kimmel has scouted several sites looking for this bee even though the pandemic meant help was limited. Up to now, these bees were found only in the pine scrub habitat at four locations that totaled only 16 square miles, but after extensive survey work on mostly protected state lands was carried out, the bees have been spotted by researchers on ten properties, up to 50 miles away from the original locations. This is good news for the species, but it wasn’t an easy task.
Kimmel and his adviser, Jaret Daniels, director of the museum’s McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity, are working on a 2-year project concerning the blue calamintha bee’s population, location and its nesting and feeding habits.
More of the elusive bees have been spotted since then, but the coronavirus pandemic is seriously interfering with any research being undertaken. Covid-19 global shutdowns have impacted their project. Kimmel initially received permission to work at the station, but Daniels was prevented from joining him there due to the university’s prohibition on travel. The timing is quite unfortunate as it coincides with the bee’s very limited flight season which is mid-March to early May. Daniels praises Kimmel’s achievements and the data being collected, but they would have had more people on the ground except for the Covid-19 virus restrictions. The pandemic has suspended volunteer operations.
It took Kimmel anywhere from hours to days to find even one bee at times, but eventually he found them at multiple sites. Kimmel, a postdoctoral researcher, shares that when they first spotted the understudied and imperiled bee species, they were really excited since they knew it was possible that they wouldn’t find the bee at all.
This is an important first step towards conserving the metallic navy insects. This rare pollinator bee, Osmia calaminthae, depends on an endangered blooming plant, Ashe’s calamint, in a fast-disappearing ecosystem, the Lake Wales Region. Florida’s State Wildlife Action Plan lists Osmia calaminthae as a species that needs the greatest conservation. This project may help decide whether this bee qualifies for protection under the Endangered Species Act. A grant from the US Fish and Wildlife Service State Wildlife Grant by Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is funding the project.
According to Daniels, this is a highly specialized and localized bee. Daniels and Kimmel intend to find out if the bee visits any other types of flowers besides the Ashe’s calamint, and they can study this from the pollen the bees collect. To date, they’ve recorded one instance of the bee visiting a different floral host.
Kimmel currently lives at a station near Lake Placid as he seeks challenges to the bee’s survival. Driving through the miles of orange groves puts things into perspective for him about how habitat loss affects all animals in the area.
For now, he must work alone, much like the solitary bee he is observing. He travels to sites known to have high density of Ashe’s calamint and patiently waits for the blue bee to arrive.
Daniels points out that work like this is a collaboration, and couldn’t be done without the broader community of assistance that makes such a project work. To see the museum's article complete with photos, click here.
We look forward to learning more about the discoveries surrounding this rare blue metallic bee as research unfolds.
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