Montana State University

Montana bees get washed, fluffed and brushed for MSU researchers

June 30, 2015 -- By Evelyn Boswell, MSU News Service

Paloma Amaral, an exchange student from Brazil, washes bee specimens for examination and identification. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.MSU research associate Casey Delphia (left)  and Paloma Amaral, an exchange student from Brazil, dry bee specimens after washing for examination and identification. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.MSU research associate Casey Delphia (right) and Paloma Amaral, an exchange student from Brazil, prepare bee specimens by brushing the fine hairs for examination and identification. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.Photos reveal a bee speciman before washing, drying and brushing (left) and after the process (right) in preparation for examination and pinning. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.

Paloma Amaral, an exchange student from Brazil, washes bee specimens for examination and identification. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.

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Tel: (406) 994-4571
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BOZEMAN – Thousands of Montana bees will go to a pint-sized salon to have their hair washed, dried and fluffed this summer, but it’s hardly a luxury, according to the Montana State University entomologists who act as their stylists.

A freshly coiffed bee is a necessity.

Whether they’re documenting the bumble bees of Montana, studying the insects that pollinate Montana’s huckleberries or analyzing the effect of native wildflowers on bees that pollinate Montana crops, research associate Casey Delphia and graduate student Amy Dolan said they need to have bees look their best so they can accurately identify them.

It’s hard to determine hair color and patterns and body colors and features in matted bees, after all.

Bedraggled bees look all black, but some bees actually have blue bodies, Delphia said. Others can have metallic green bodies. And hair color can range from yellow or orange to white, tan or brown. Some male bees have little mustaches.

Besides that, unkempt bees wouldn’t be easy to study in the research collections that MSU and visiting entomologists will examine far into the future. They may have nectar puke stuck in their hair. They may be doubled over in a death pose.

“Bees, especially wild species of bees, are an integral part of nearly every terrestrial ecosystem on Earth,” said Michael Ivie, curator of the Montana Entomology Collection, associate professor of entomology and one of several MSU researchers who studies bees.

“When you look out at the world, if you see flowers, you are in the main looking at the work of bees,” he continued.  “Montana's hundreds of species of mostly unknown and unappreciated native bees work to keep our plant communities working, from pollinating our tomato plants to rare wild orchids.”

Delphia said, “Bees that aren’t properly blow-dried are just sad. If they aren’t properly prepared, it can be very difficult, if not impossible, to identify them.”

Among those who clean bees in addition to conducting research are Joe Wood, Jessica Monte and Paloma Amaral.

Wood joined Delphia last semester through “First Year Research Exploration” (FYRE), a new MSU program designed to connect first-year undergraduate students with hands-on research experiences. Monte joined Delphia in the summer of 2014 as a field research assistant. She is now a junior working on an independent research project under Delphia’s mentorship in the McNair Scholars Program, which serves the needs of MSU undergraduates who are either first-generation/low income students or minorities traditionally underrepresented in graduate school.

Amaral, from Brazil, is an MSU undergraduate exchange student who is interning in the Montana Entomology Collection with Ivie. Besides working in the lab, the job takes Amaral into the mountains of southwest Montana. It recently took her more than 1,750 miles through central and eastern Montana to collect insects for Dolan’s master’s degree project on the bumble bees of Montana.

While searching the Internet, Delphia discovered a variety of techniques for processing wet bees by the inventive Sam Droege, a scientist with the USGS’ Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab in Beltsville, Md. From those, Delphia developed the MSU bee salon where she and the others use paint brushes, dish soap and a hair dryer to make their clients more presentable. The “salon” -- actually an unadorned corner of entomology professor Kevin O’Neill’s laboratory – is generally used once or twice a week for a couple of hours.

Demonstrating how she works, Delphia emptied some of her collected bees into a canning jar. Then she added warm water and a drop of dishwashing soap, covered the jar with tulle netting and shook it so long and hard that it was a mystery how the bees – occasionally visible through the bubbles – remained intact.

The bees had been stored in alcohol shortly after collecting them, so they were still flexible, Delphia explained.

She drained the water and laid the clean bees on a paper towel to start drying. Then she returned the bees to the Mason jar, covered the top again with tulle netting, pulled out a blow dryer and aimed it at the bees while shaking the jar. Once the bees were dry, Delphia removed them from the jar and fluffed their hair with a paint brush, ready to store on special pins in the Montana Entomology Collection.

The benefits are especially obvious on the hairiest bees, Delphia said.

She inspected one specimen – now obviously blue - under the microscope and went on to share more tales from the life of a bee researcher.

On most days during the summer, she works outdoors on local research farms, fooling bees by setting out yellow bowls that bees perceive as flowers, Delphia said.

But today, in the MSU bee salon, it’s all about making bees neat, tidy and most of all, useful.

For more information about bee research at MSU, go to http://www.montana.edu/mountainsandminds/article.php?article=15531

Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or evelynb@montana.edu