148 - John Ascher - 10 Oregon Bees


Andony Melathopoulos: [00:00:00] I had a lot of feedback from a show I did last month with John Ascher who's an Assistant Professor in the Department of Biological Science at the National University in Singapore. In that show Dr. Ascher made the case that in some really meaningful respects we're on the cusp of making a transition from where birding was before the 1970's to what it looks like today, in the world of bee identification. Well, we are real fortunate we were able to coax Dr. Ascher to come back on the show to talk a little bit more about how this works.

[00:00:37] And today he's going to talk about something really interesting, we're going to talk just briefly about some of these different digital platforms for regular people to get involved with bee identification and collecting data - but then we're going to focus in on records collected through iNaturalist here in Oregon. And we're going to go through the top ten most popular bees [00:01:00] that people have recorded here in the state. And there's going to be a link in the show notes and you can follow along. This is really wonderful as we're going to have a world expert walk us through how to identify some of the most common bees in Oregon.

[00:01:11] There will also be some good tips on how to record that data if you're out with your phone for example, in a national park where collecting is very difficult to do. You can take a picture and how that information will go forward to contribute to science and some of the best practices for collecting data. I'm very excited, here we go - Dr. John Ascher today on PolliNation.

[00:02:08] [00:02:00] Welcome back Dr. Ascher! We're so excited that you agreed to come back on the show. There was a lot of interest in the last episode you did, and I think people wanted to know more about these online guides. So welcome back!

[00:02:23] John Ascher: [00:02:23] Okay. Thanks for inviting me back. It was a great opportunity the first time, and I'm looking forward to getting into some more details about bees of the Pacific Northwest and Oregon. And how we identify them and how we can use some of these online tools. So we'll be building on the end of our past discussion. And as we talked about before, there are now multiple citizen science portals that give us the opportunity to share our bee images, get them identified and get them organized into projects and used by the public as a reference guide in many other things.

[00:02:55] So one of them is a BugGuide [00:03:00] and BugGuide is an excellent place for sort of high quality cropped images that you want to share and get organized onto what is essentially a ever growing online field guide. And for bees, this has been very successful and many of the species if not most now have well fleshed out species pages with quite a bit of content, including links to distributional maps and so on and so forth. So this is a wonderful reference guide and it's sort of a defacto field guide that you can refer to because it has a high quality of curation. And the tools are quite excellent to ensure high quality image presentation, but also the curators and those people who are identifying the bees have a lot of direct control over how they appear on the pages and so that leads to really good data quality.

[00:03:54] Andony Melathopoulos: [00:03:54] Okay.

[00:03:54] John Ascher: [00:03:54] So I recommend that site. And then of course iNaturalist has been just growing [00:04:00] exponentially and is probably the best place for a very high quantity excellent images for all animals and plants - but certainly including bees. There are now more than half a million bee observations there and these have been sent in by more than 100,000 observers.

[00:04:23] Andony Melathopoulos: [00:04:23] My goodness.

[00:04:25] John Ascher: [00:04:25] Yeah. And they are almost getting close to 15,000 identifiers. So the amount of buy-in by the public and the amount of effort and work that goes into this, it's really stupendous.

[00:04:38] Andony Melathopoulos: [00:04:38] Well, one of the things that prompted this episode is that there's a lot of ways to filter the data in iNaturalist. And you've created a list of the bees of Oregon that that have been identified. And I was really shocked! There's 6,300 [00:05:00] observations that people have collected and 116 species that are identified there -116 species is really remarkable.

[00:05:10] John Ascher: [00:05:10] Yeah. I think maybe the most remarkable thing is if you remember the last time we discussed, we briefly chatted about this and the numbers have gone up very substantially just since a few months ago. So the most impressive thing about iNaturalist as far as bees are concerned to me, is the rate of increase. Where I used to be able to sort of keep up with the observations pretty well but now so many are coming in - there's been such a tremendous enthusiasm, not just in Oregon, but globally that these numbers just keep jumping up. So globally, there are now more than 2,000 actually 2,370 identified species.

[00:05:54] More than 10% of the world's known bee [00:06:00] species are represented already in this resource globally. Which is in a way quite a lot because the status quo or the "received wisdom" was that bees are one of these groups that are too difficult to identify from images. And that it's strictly necessary to have a rigorous specimen collection and identification at all times. What I think is happening all over the world is that things are entering a new era where it's more like birding.

[00:06:31] And just as in birding, they went from a case where nobody could identify you know say fall warblers, and then they figured that out. And then they moved onto the gulls and then they moved onto the immature gulls and now they're working on the hybrids and really the most difficult cases. And I think in the case of bees we've seen a situation where the really obvious bumblebees that are the usual color form were being sorted out years ago. But just now I think we're grappling with a lot of these really difficult identification [00:07:00] problems, regional variation, photo artifacts.

[00:07:04] All of these phenomenon are getting understood much better and also the quality of the photos gets better and better. And the quality of the initial identifications gets better as the user community builds their own expertise. So things are accelerating! And we're able to assemble a range of species and a quantity of observations and a percentage of coverage of how many things could be identified that I think are unprecedented and that wouldn't have been anticipated.

[00:07:35] I think people in general, have been too skeptical in the sense that I think that looking back at some statements people made they would say, "well bees sometimes you can identify them to genus, but usually that's even difficult and getting to species is usually impossible." But if you look at places like Germany or England or areas where they really know the bee fauna they can identify a large proportion of [00:08:00] their species - the top experts. And I think things are moving that way in the United States as well.

[00:08:05] Andony Melathopoulos: [00:08:05] Well, I was going to say that you're one of a few taxonomists that have really jumped at least with the North American bees and likely many other areas of identifying on iNaturalist. I remember I was in Mexico City a couple of years ago and I saw a Trigona and I thought, "oh, I've never seen one of these!" I put it on iNaturalist and the next day I saw, you had taken a look at it and verified it. So it sounds like you've seen the potential in this technology. Can you tell us how like taxonomists interact with things like iNaturalist and these other portals? It's a little bit more fuzzier than having a specimen in front of you, but you probably also know a lot of these common things really well.

[00:08:56] John Ascher: [00:08:56] Yeah. So it's a bit [00:09:00] complicated as you can imagine with this many records and I would say that I'm sort of looking for a couple of things, one is the low hanging fruit. So, how can I help the community and also help myself by just getting the obvious things out of the way - the honeybees cleared out. So I'm trying to get more and more efficient methods of using the various filters. Like they have the identify tool filtering, moving forward very efficiently and getting the obvious things out of the way.

[00:09:35] And then for the very difficult ones I'm also trying to get an efficient methodology. So for example I have an array of European guides covering all the European species. So in that fauna that I don't know as well personally as well as the North American fauna - I will keep by my computer an array well, sort of a [00:10:00] stack by this point of many different guides for you know Germany and Czech and UK and France and all these different countries and Spain. And I have them ready as needed to consult.

[00:10:16] Andony Melathopoulos: [00:10:16] Everybody wants to know, like roughly how many digital vouchers have you determined?

[00:10:25] John Ascher: [00:10:25] For all creatures across all the sites I would say more than a million.

[00:10:30] Andony Melathopoulos: [00:10:30] Oh man!

[00:10:33] John Ascher: [00:10:33] I mean that would also include specimen records. But  anyway for iNaturalist alone it's about 285,000 bee observations.

[00:10:46] Andony Melathopoulos: [00:10:46] Wow. Okay!

[00:10:47] John Ascher: [00:10:47] But I've also done quite a bit more at BugGuide because I've been working at that site longer than, than at iNaturalist. So one thing I want to get at is that these sites are actually quite well linked to each other, both [00:11:00] conceptually in terms of overlapping communities. So the idea that they're fully separate is maybe a bit false. I think they all have their strengths and they are communicating with each other in the sense that BugGuide is functioning as a very effective reference guide.

[00:11:13] And iNaturalist is an extremely good way to accumulate the vast number of records very quickly and reliably. And in a user friendly way that really prioritizes the user experience or the contributors experience. And then in other sites like DiscoverLife things are sort of synthesized in a different way because it's more of a aggregation of the data and integrator of data. So for example, the citizen science records can be contributed to these global biodiversity initiatives and then they can be integrated with the specimen records and put up on [00:12:00] maps.

[00:12:01] So the maps on the site of DiscoverLife would then include in addition to specimen records, also the public image records from these other sites. So they're not entirely separate from each other. And also the new state records and new country records and so on that I'm obtaining from a site like iNaturalist, then go to update my files for state and country and provincial records - which then I share with DiscoverLife for their bee species guide and world checklist.

[00:12:38] Andony Melathopoulos: [00:12:38] Fantastic. Well, let's move on a little bit to this question. What is best practices? So we have lots of listeners who are contributing and we were looking at some of the contributors here in Oregon - people we all know. What are some of the best practices for contributing bee data on iNaturalist, what things should people be making [00:13:00] sure to do both in terms of pictures? But also in terms of like, you know, it gives you that option of identifying the bee and you know, how far down that rabbit hole do you want to go?

[00:13:11] John Ascher: [00:13:11] Yeah, of course there's no one size fits all answer to this. But I would say first of all, take the best photo that you can. And people often ask what is the best angle? And usually the answer is multiple angles because very often, even if the photo is a bit blurry or low quality or uncropped, if you have multiple angles, often it's easier to identify the bee. So I would say don't take one photo of the bee, especially if it's a resting bee like a sleeping bee - try to get different viewpoints, including the tail. Not just to add maybe an oblique view from the bottom, in addition to the top and things like this.

[00:13:46] Andony Melathopoulos: [00:13:46] Yeah because using iNaturalist you can add as many pictures as you want.

[00:13:53] John Ascher: [00:13:53] Right, but that being said, I would say be really careful that you actually have the same individual. If in doubt, it's [00:14:00] better to submit them as separate observations. So one pitfall is a lot of people will sit and watch a bush and take photos of bumblebees as they arrive at the blueberry bush or whatever. And they'll end up taking three or four species of bees and then reporting it as a single observation.

[00:14:14] Andony Melathopoulos: [00:14:14] Oh right, okay.

[00:14:16] John Ascher: [00:14:16] If you're a hundred percent sure it's the same bee, take multiple photos, link them and submit them together. But try not to mix and create a virtual humbug becuase that is not very helpful.

[00:14:28] Andony Melathopoulos: [00:14:28] Okay. All right. So try to get multiple pictures of the same individual and from different angles. That sounds like a great tip. What else?

[00:14:37] John Ascher: [00:14:37] I would say you can make use of the iNaturalist artificial intelligence, but you need to be very cautious because you need to realize there's a big geographic bias. So if you're working in an area where they have a huge number of observations, like maybe the Eastern United States or United Kingdom, or somewhere like that, it might work well. But if you're in somewhere [00:15:00] maybe Eastern Oregon, which has a smaller number of people. A lot of the bees, they are not going to be within the system and it's not going to work as effectively.

[00:15:11] Andony Melathopoulos: [00:15:11] Right. So when I'm in iNaturalist, I go, "what did you see if you press that?" It starts to guess it goes through and it says something. And you're saying that some of those may not even exist in your region?

[00:15:25] John Ascher: [00:15:25] Well, it's going to try to find a match. And so if a lot of the data it's using to train the artificial intelligence is coming from the Eastern United States or from Europe or somewhere like that, then it might direct you towards a species which is not relevant. So the number one thing I would suggest to people is if you do identify to a low level like species or a precise level, try to verify that it's within the known or plausible range of the species.

[00:16:00] [00:15:59] So the way you can do that is to go to a website like DiscoverLife or even iNaturalist itself and realize that there are probably going to be outliers and mis-identified specimens that other people have submitted. But if you look at the general distributional pattern, if you're an outlier or certainly if you are an extreme outlier, like you're reporting a bee from the West that where almost all the other records come from the East, then you might want to rethink that.

[00:16:26] Andony Melathopoulos: [00:16:26] And as you point out, the very first thing that happens is -  I just took a picture of a bumblebee on a screen and the first thing it said is "we're pretty sure it's in this group". And so it said I could just leave it at Bombus.

[00:16:38] John Ascher: [00:16:38] I would suggest leaving it at a general level, if in doubt, because if you have it at Bombus and it turns out it's another genus that doesn't really cause much trouble. The issue comes in if you try to identify a species and then that can actually show up on species level maps and cause problems, and also mislead other observers. [00:17:00] So a lot of people will report Apis cerana, the Asian honey bee from North America so it's constantly showing up on the maps. 

[00:17:08] Andony Melathopoulos: [00:17:08] And I suppose the other thing for you is if you go to a general identification then it probably helps you in your filtering, you're like, "I'm going to pull out the bumblebees" and then you're like, "okay." And then you can go through and do your more finer work at that point.

[00:17:21] John Ascher: [00:17:21] Yeah. So, it's a bit of a trade off because if somebody guesses and they're right it actually expedites the process that they did that. Because if you guess at a certain level, and it turns out that when I'm checking the identifications, I can see what they guess and it can actually expedite things. But if you make a uneducated guess, then it actually slows things down and complicates things and creates confusion along the way. So I would encourage people to make educated guesses that account for the distribution of the species. But don't make [00:18:00] an uneducated guess and don't accept the AI level at the species level necessarily. So the AI can point you in the right direction, but I think you as a human still need to make some judgements.

[00:18:14] Andony Melathopoulos: [00:18:14] Okay, so that gets your records, right? Get the multiple images, different angles if possible and really kind of go as general, you know, unless you're really sure don't go down to the species as sort of best practices using iNaturalist.

[00:18:29] John Ascher: [00:18:29] Well, I think also like guessing at above the species level, like guessing at a genus or even a subgenus doesn't really do too much harm. But when you guess at the species level, that can create problems because then it shows up on those species maps and that in turn can mislead the other users. I would say, stay away from making species identifications, unless you have some solid basis to do it.

[00:18:52] Andony Melathopoulos: [00:18:52] Well, that's great. Let's take a quick break because that leads into our next section. We're going to look at the list of bees that are common here [00:19:00] in Oregon on iNaturalist. And you'll help train our eyes a little bit towards what those different species are.

[00:19:08] John Ascher: [00:19:08] Okay, great.

[00:19:11] Andony Melathopoulos: [00:19:11] We are back. So Dr. Ascher, you've just shared a link with me and this is really great. You can do the filtering in iNaturalist, and then you can create a report. And what you have for me are all the bee observations in Oregon ranked in terms of their observations. And I was really surprised at this. I would've thought honeybees would have been number one, but actually they're number two. Tell us a little bit, you know, is it hard to tell honeybees apart from the other bees?

[00:19:42] John Ascher: [00:19:42] Well, it really can be remarkably difficult especially for somebody who's not an expert. And probably the main reason for that is that honeybees are subject to a lot of color variability. So you get your classic honeybee, which is orange with black and yellow [00:20:00] stripes - but you can also get honeybees that essentially appear all black. And so those are often misidentified or sometimes they're attributed to a particular subspecies, like the British honeybee. But actually, it's usually better not to identify the honeybee to subspecies because even within a single hive, you can get considerable color variation.

[00:20:24] So rather than over-interpret this color it's best to just at least in Oregon to assume that they're all European honeybees. And European honeybees tend to be a hybrid of different so-called subspecies or different populations from various parts of Europe, including, but not limited to Italy and the Balkans and so forth. And so these honeybees which are essentially hybrids are roaming around. And in the new world, I often prefer just to call them the Western honeybee, which is an umbrella inclusive [00:21:00] name for the entire species.

[00:21:01] Andony Melathopoulos: [00:21:01] Oh, I see. So I guess if you were in Europe and there still were some pure populations that would be of value. But here in North America, everything is so mixed up, there has been so many introductions with so much interbreeding that calling it Western honeybee is really the accurate way to call them.

[00:21:22] John Ascher: [00:21:22] Well, it's even more complicated than that. So what people need to realize is that there are subspecies, which as you said, are best identified in their native range. So if you're on the Iberian Peninsula and you see a very dark honey bee, you can probably more or less safely call it subspecies iberiensis. But if you're in a place like North America, where you are dealing with introduced populations, then it becomes more dicey and maybe less reliable to try to attribute any subspecies identification. So in other words, subspecies are better used in their native range with native populations, if you can somehow verify that.

[00:21:59] Andony Melathopoulos: [00:21:59] We have a [00:22:00] lot of color variation. So how do you tell these guys apart from other bees?

[00:22:04] John Ascher: [00:22:04] Yeah. So just moving on a little bit more, so European honeybee is a name that's used for a grouping of subspecies and hybrids that are the managed honeybees that have traditionally been used across North America. And then we have the African subspecies, which has also been called the Africanized honey bees, or the killer bee is invading North into California, but Oregon is too cold for it. So it's pretty safe to call the Oregon bees, European honey bees, if you want to as well.

[00:22:36] Andony Melathopoulos: [00:22:36] Oh, good tip.

[00:22:37]John Ascher: [00:22:37] But there's only one species found of honey bees in the entire new world. So I think users need to be aware of that. So if you have any sort of a stinging honeybee, it's going to be this species. So, how do you tell it? Some distinctive features are hairy eyes, which other superficially similar species wouldn't have. The [00:23:00] corbicula, or pollen basket and that's something that you only would otherwise see in the local bees and bumblebees. And usually people can tell bumblebees by their fur coat and colorful pattern and hairy tail or abdomen - so having the pollen basket in the workers.

[00:23:15] And then probably the best way to verify your honeybee is going to be the wing veins, which are these lines in the wing. And a honeybee has a very distinctive pattern where the marginal cell or the enclosed area on the anterior margin of the wing is really long and narrow, almost like a stretched out hot dog or sausage or something like that. So it has a quite different wing venation from other species. So even if you don't want to learn all the technical aspects and the terminology and the homologies, you can still Google "wings of honeybees" and learn the pattern and then using your brains amazing [00:24:00] pattern recognition you can identify if you have a honeybee or not. So I would say the wing veins is the most reliable thing.

[00:24:06] Andony Melathopoulos: [00:24:06] I suppose with wings it's hard when they're flying, but your picture is going to freeze it. I see a lot of these on iNaturalist, you can see the wing veins really well especially because some of these phones have excellent magnification. If you had the whole bee in the frame, you'll be able to see the wing veins.

[00:24:23] John Ascher: [00:24:23] So actually the orange and black striped pattern is fairly distinctive also, but the heart shaped face where the eyes are converging below. And so basically the head is rather narrow below, that's something that you find in honeybees, and you can also see it in some native bees, like Coletes. And in fact, these Coletes native bees are the ones that are closest in shape in some respects to the honeybee. So they have sort of a conical shape to the abdomen. So when honeybees are mis-identified, often they're confused with the Coletes. But the wing veins, the patterns made by the lines in the wings are really quite different [00:25:00] between these groups.

[00:25:00] So I would focus on the hairy eyes, the pollen basket in the workers, in the case of the drones you would have really giant eyes so they almost look like flies. So the drones are very distinctive as well. The most important thing is not to overemphasize the color pattern because as I said, it can vary. And it's also very helpful when you're trying to learn to identify bees, to look very closely at the details. So rather than just think of the honeybee as orange and black look very carefully at how most of the abdominal segments may be orange, but then the rim of them may be black and how they may have pale white hairs at the base.

[00:25:38] So in general, it's very useful to note, not just where the colors are, but what segments the colors are and whether they're on the apex or the distal or tip of the segments. And then furthermore, whether you're looking at the bare integument or skeleton of the bee, or whether you're looking at hairs. So if you [00:26:00] look at a honeybee very closely or an image of a honeybee, you can see that the orange is actually the skeleton and the black is the skeleton, but this yellowish whitish stuff that you see towards the tail of the bee, is hairs. And when you know that it's hairs, then you can understand when it's been worn. Do you know what I mean?

[00:26:17] Hairs will wear off, but the skeleton will not wear off. So the more you get into the details of understanding what parts are making the colors, then you can account for variation and where. For example, abrasion of the hairs and you can understand much better what's happening. So I would suggest not just for the honeybees, for all the bees that people look, you know, a little bit more detail instead of the pattern as a whole, try to break it down by segment. Look at each segment of the honeybee abdomen and see which parts are which color, and then note which colors are made by hairs and which colors are made by the skeleton. Does that make sense?

[00:26:57] Andony Melathopoulos: [00:26:57] It does make sense. And I guess one thing I just wanted to put a [00:27:00] finer point on, because I do think the first feature is really indicative of honeybees and you don't always see it. Because not all bees are collecting pollen, but when the pollen is mounding up on that pollen basket, it is quite distinct though the shape of the pollen, the way it rests in that basket is only really seen in bumblebees

[00:27:21] John Ascher: [00:27:21] In bumblebees and honeybees, yes. These are the corbiculate bees that have the basket for carrying their pollen. So just to be clear for those not so familiar with bees, the majority of bees carry their pollen in a brush of hair and the brush of hair is often on the hind legs. Taking the place of this pollen basket or in the Megachilid bees, or leaf-cutter bees and wool-carder bees it's going to be a brush of hair under the abdomen. So bees have different ways of transporting their pollen. And that can be a very useful identification tool to separate the major groups.

[00:27:55] Andony Melathopoulos: [00:27:55] Okay, well that sort of is a good segue to the [00:28:00] top ten bees we've seen in Oregon. So the honeybee there is 770 observations, but ahead of it is a bumblebee. And in the top 10 bee in terms of frequency of observation, five of them are bumblebees. How on earth do we tell them apart?

[00:28:17] John Ascher: [00:28:17] Yeah. So the bumblebees are very difficult to tell apart because they tend to converge on sometimes very similar or nearly identical color patterns. So, as I was mentioning with the honeybees it's very important to pay attention to the details of the structure and not just look at the generalities of their part, yellow and part black - but to see which individual segment is bearing the color. So is the yellow on the first abdominal segment or the second segment and things of this nature.

[00:28:45] So it turns out that the most commonly observed bee in Oregon is actually quite difficult to identify even from specimens and it's Bombus vosnesenskii and this is called the yellow face small bee. And having the yellow face is very [00:29:00] helpful to distinguish it from the sixth most common species, which is the California bumblebee. Because the California bumblebee has a black face the hairs on its head are black and this gives an appearance of an entirely black face and head. Contrasting with the yellow forehead and face of the yellow face bumblebee.

[00:29:21] So right there, we can rule out Bombus californicus but the problem is there are at least two other species with a very, very similar color pattern. And one of them is mostly found in coastal Oregon, which is called, Bombus caliginosus, I've called it the fog belt bumblebee, but there are other common names for it. But basically it's nearly identical in general pattern to the yellow faced bumblebee. And you have to do a very detailed study under the microscope, or look at some very subtle features like length of the coat, or look at the pattern of yellow in the females [00:30:00] under the tail - which can be really hard to photograph in order to reliably separate that.

[00:30:05] So long story short is that the Bombus vosnesenskii even though it's the most common species can actually be a very serious identification challenge even to the most experienced experts. And one thing I want to emphasize is the importance of distribution. So if you're in Eastern Oregon, especially far Eastern Oregon - and a bee of this sort is not going to be Bombus caliginosus because that's a coastal species. Instead, it's much more likely to be Bombus vosnesenskii but then you also have to consider a less commonly seen species called Bombus fan.

[00:30:39] And that case, the yellow of the tail is on the third abdominal segment, as opposed to the fourth abdominal segment in Bombus vosnesenskii. So what this really means is that even though this bee is very, very common, it takes great attention to detail and some comparative experience and also a knowledge of distributional patterns and local [00:31:00] occurrence in order to reliably identify the species.

[00:31:02] Andony Melathopoulos: [00:31:02] Well, one thing I just want to quickly mention, because I imagine people are trying to follow this in their heads. But we will have the link to this list in the show notes. What I would advise is, as you're listening to the episode bring this list up on your tablet and you can follow along. The nice thing is if you click one of those bees, it'll show you multiple images, range maps, and also phenology of when the bees have been found in the area. I would really recommend at this point if you haven't done this already, open up that link and follow along as we're talking.

[00:31:39] John Ascher: [00:31:39] Okay, just to clarify how you open the link. You go to the worldwide web, inaturalist.org and then hit the explore tab and then fill in bees for the taxon. And then the location would be Oregon. And that's how you make this link. And then if you click on the 1-16 species, if you click [00:32:00] on that tab that mentioned species, then it will pull up the species in order of most numerous to least numerous in terms of observations. You can also click on the observations tab and get a list of observations. There's other ways that you can view it, but the species tab is very useful.

[00:32:17] Andony Melathopoulos: [00:32:17] Okay, great. We will have it there just in case. But I think you can create these lists anywhere you are. If we have listeners in other States, they can use that same workflow to generate a same list for their state. This is fantastic!

[00:32:32] John Ascher: [00:32:32] Yeah. So it creates a sort of defacto, a state list of not all of the species, because there are, of course there are hundreds of other species in Oregon, but it gives you a list of those species that are commonly observed and identified.

[00:32:46] Andony Melathopoulos: [00:32:46] Okay. Cool. All right. So given that, you know, the yellow faced bumblebee can be confused with the fog belted bumblebee. And I know, [00:33:00] Bombus caliginosus will fly into the Willamette Valley not just on the coast but not in Eastern Oregon. When we fill in, like what bumblebee we think this is, should we just leave it at Bombus or how would you prefer to see this material classified when it's a put into iNaturalist?

[00:33:20] John Ascher: [00:33:20] Yeah, that's a really tricky question. In general, for me, if you're not sure how to separate it from Bombus californicus I would simply call it Bombus. But if you're sure that it has a yellow face and is not Bombus californicus, or one of these other more distantly related species, then you can call it a Pyrobombus, P Y R O-bombus, which is a subgenus that encompasses all of the lookalike species.

[00:33:51] Andony Melathopoulos: [00:33:51] Oh, so it's a more general category that gets everything. Okay, great. That's excellent.

[00:33:55] John Ascher: [00:33:55] So this was actually a lengthy debate and a [00:34:00] discussion on the biodiversity portal of BugGuide. And as a group, we collectively decided to have a category of Bombus vosnesenskii or caliginosus. I think it's actually presented the other way around, but anyway, it's an either or category and we categorize those species. So we get into a bit of a different site culture, where at BugGuide, the culture is in these doubtful cases to create a what we call a no taxon or something that's not a formal taxon, but it's a either or category. And then you can identify them to that level and accumulate images there. Whereas at iNaturalist, they tend to prefer to stick to the formal taxonomy.

[00:34:42] And so if you're relying only on the official formal taxonomy, then the most precise you can get to is the subgeneric level of Pyrobombus or Pyrobombus if you prefer.

[00:34:52] Andony Melathopoulos: [00:34:52] I suppose it's not the end of the world if somebody says, "I know it's not californicus cause I see it's got yellow hair on its face" and it gets [00:35:00] listed as vosnesenskii. A good taxonomist is not going to trust that probably and will want to check that a little more carefully.

[00:35:08] John Ascher: [00:35:08] That brings up a whole other issue because these portals are accumulating a lot of data - but before they can be used for science somebody has to adjudicate that they're fit for use. And I may be biased, but in my opinion, it's the people who have engaged the most with making the observations, making the identifications, curating these sites. They actually understand how these records were assembled and can probably be in a good position to know where the problems are going to lie. What the fixes are, which identifications can be considered validated and which ones are just a first pass or an approximation.

[00:35:49] So I think it's very important when these data are used, that people not just mine the site, but they need to know not just the data, but the metadata. That means how these data were assembled, [00:36:00] what makes them fit for use or not? And so if people just download the data and mine them and run a bunch of stats, they can come to very much the wrong conclusion. But if you have somebody who deeply understands the data, they can do things like put geographic filters on the records, they can look closely at various criteria of data quality and decide which ones can be used with no problems - which ones can be used with caution and which ones have to be quarantined or redacted to a lower level. It's actually very important.

[00:36:37] Andony Melathopoulos: [00:36:37] Okay. So we've got a yellow face bumblebee that we gave a good thorough treatment. And you were talking about, we have another bee that has similar banding patterns, but it has black hairs on its face. Tell us about some of these other bumblebees and how we can tell them apart.

[00:36:52] John Ascher: [00:36:52] Okay. So there's a bumblebee it's very, very commonly seen in Oregon called Bombus melanopygus - [00:37:00] the specific epithet means black tail. And so the common name is a remarkably enough black tail bumblebee. And what's very, very interesting is that there are multiple color forms of this within Oregon. So there's a form that's very common in California that has a mostly yellow thorax, and then mostly black abdomen with yellow at the base and at the tip.

[00:37:25] And this is very common in this sort of drier more Southern parts of Oregon extending into California. But then in the more Northern and Western parts of Oregon, then you see it a very different color form that has a grizzled black and gray or black and pale yellow thorax for the most part, but the yellow at the end and then much of the tail is red. So basically you have a red form and a black form of several bumblebee species occurring in Oregon. And so [00:38:00] you need to learn both forms and consider both possibilities to identify this bee. So even though there's only one species, when you're doing visual identifications, you actually have to learn two very different color forms.

[00:38:18] Andony Melathopoulos: [00:38:18] For me it's the most common bumblebee I see in a birdhouse. I get called every year, early in the spring, "bumblebees have moved into my birdhouse" and it's always Bombus melanopygus. But if you go to Medford or Ashland, you start to see both, like, I think as you head towards the South of the State, you really are in a bit of a pickle.

[00:38:44] John Ascher: [00:38:44] Yeah. So I think that this highlights the fact that knowledge of the local fauna and the distribution of these bees is very helpful. So what I would suggest people do if [00:39:00] they're new is maybe to filter the species list, not to Oregon, but to their particular county for example.

[00:39:09] Andony Melathopoulos: [00:39:09] I'll be darned.

[00:39:12] John Ascher: [00:39:12] If you filter it to the county, then you can see what color forms you're likely to see in your area.

[00:39:18] Andony Melathopoulos: [00:39:18] That's a great tip. That is awesome. Okay, cool.  So what else do we have for bumblebees?

[00:39:27] John Ascher: [00:39:27] There's a species called the Bombus mixtus which I'm going to talk about that in a little bit. In this species there's a few segments at the tip of the tail that tend to be orange or red or some mix between red and orange. And the thorax is sort of a grizzled mix of black and yellow hairs. And so that's the name "mixtus" refers to the mixed [00:40:00] hair color. But the common name of fuzzy-horned bumblebees refers to a character of the male where at the base of the antenna or the flagellum, it's going to have a dense patches of hair - which can be hard to see, especially in images, but it's a distinctive feature.

[00:40:17] So this brings up a point that when you're identifying these bumblebees and also bees in general, you have to account for pretty significant sexual dimorphism. So the males have their own characters and they often look considerably different than the female. So you can't just learn the species as a whole, you have to learn to identify the males from the females separately.

[00:40:38] Andony Melathopoulos: [00:40:38] Okay. The next bumblebee that we have is you know, a bee that's pretty distinctive. Tell us about the brown belted bumblebee but also, I guess we have a lookalike that's rampant in the North part of Washington now. Tell us a little bit about this bumblebee.

[00:41:00] [00:41:00] John Ascher: [00:41:00] Yeah. So in Eastern North America, so Eastern United States and Canada, you are going to see a lot of bumblebees that have a more or less all yellow thorax. And then the first one or two segments of the abdomen are going to be yellow. And this is a mullerian mimicry pattern that we typically see in these Eastern bumblebees. But there's one species called Bombus griseocollis which is very common across the Western North America as well, especially to the North and in the mountains. And some distinctive features of this is that the female the workers and the queens can have a brown belt. So at the base of their second abdominal segment, rather than having yellow or black, as in the other bumblebees, they have a distinctive brownish tinge to the hair patch.

[00:41:52] But in Oregon, until recently it was relatively easy to identify this bee because it was pretty much the only species that had this Eastern sort of [00:42:00] pattern. But what's happening now is that the greenhouse industry has brought the Eastern bumblebee, Bombus impatiens, also called the common eastern bumble bee have brought that in outside of its native range and it's been unfortunately introduced into British Columbia. And likely from there has spread down into Washington and maybe making its way still further South.

[00:42:24] And so we we've sort of created an identification problem in the Pacific North West, I would say irresponsibly introducing the most common model species for this mimicry complex into an area where it's not supposed to occur. So the way we can tell Bombus griseocollis is we have to look in detail at various things like the hair coat. How long are the hairs? How shaggy are the hairs? Are part of the black hairs found on the top of the head or pale hairs? And we can [00:43:00] also look at whether the pale hairs extend to the second abdominal segment or not. And we can also look at wing color. So long story short, we need to look into details of that pattern, we don't want to look at the generalities of the pattern.

[00:43:15] And then finally, in the males, these are noteworthy because the males have large eyes, really big eyes. And so the large eyed males can be confused with some other species in Oregon such as Bombus rufocinctus which also has the large eyes. But that is going to have more extensive pale hairs on the second abdominal segment.

[00:43:38] Andony Melathopoulos: [00:43:38] It's good to note. And also I think we do have listeners in Washington and there was a good I think citizen science project, Chris Looney with Washington State Department of Agriculture is helping track these bees. So keep your eye out. I think this is another great thing with iNaturalist is that it will allow us over time to track some of these newly introduced [00:44:00] bees as they move. Okay, let’s take a quick break and then we'll deal with all the non-bumblebees and non-honeybees.

[00:44:13] Okay. We're back. So we've got one, two, three bees left and they all look a little different from one another. Oh no, we've got four bees left. I don't know how you want to deal with this? The next one in line?

[00:44:34] John Ascher: [00:44:34] Yeah so why don't we say that there are some cases where it's very difficult to identify bees to species. And one of these is a group called the metallic sweat bees in subgenus Dialictus. So these are the tiny sweat bees that are found in very large numbers across most of the world. And here you often have a dull metallic green head and thorax and more [00:45:00] or less blackish, but sometimes greenish abdomen that's more or less covered in hairs especially towards the tip.

[00:45:06] And these can be very difficult to identify both because there are a lot of look like species, but also because they're really small in size. So a lot of the photos just don't have the sufficient resolution of detail to identify them. And then furthermore, it's only been very recently, actually in 2013 that there's been a taxonomic revision of these species that sorts them out, technically for scientists.

[00:45:33] So even in terms of identifying from specimens, we're still at early stages. We can use the revision of the Canadian species to identify most of the Pacific Northwest bees in this group. But it's a big challenge even for the most experienced taxonomists. So in this case we're identifying them to a form or a complex of many species and maybe in the future when people take [00:46:00] higher resolution photos, and when people become more familiar with the species found in this region, we can sort them out more finely.

[00:46:10] Andony Melathopoulos: [00:46:10] So, okay. And this complex is a subgenus, so it's not the genus level. There are multiple species in there, but it's the fifth most common on our list. So there was 131 observations, so this is not a obscure bee, it's a common bee.

[00:46:33] John Ascher: [00:46:33] I would say almost anywhere on planet earth, where you have flowers, except for maybe the most extreme Arctic environments. Pretty much everywhere in the world, including where I am now in Asia. This genus is very abundant. I would say every single one of your listeners should have it in their garden, 100%.

[00:46:54] Andony Melathopoulos: [00:46:54] Tell us a little bit about it. Are they always small? Like a kinda quarter [00:47:00] size of a honeybee?

[00:47:00] John Ascher: [00:47:00] Okay. Yes, there are. They're always much, much smaller than a honeybee. Maybe about a quarter of the size, as you said. And the technical character that you can note is that their wing veins are often weakened, but this can be very hard to see from images. In terms of images what you look for is the metallic head and thorax. And then in the abdomen, they often have sort of diffused hairs often at the base of the segments and also towards the tip of the tail covering much of the abdomen. What you don't see is very well organized hairs at the apex and that by contrast, that's something you see in another bee on the list called Halictus ligatus the ligated furrow bee which is another very common species in this area. And you identify this bee by the pale hairs at the [00:48:00] apex of the abdominal segments.

[00:48:02] Andony Melathopoulos: [00:48:02] Oh, I see. The hairs there are very distinct. When I look at the Dialictus, there's just some faint hairs on the end and here you've got like literally stripes of hair.

[00:48:16] John Ascher: [00:48:16] Yeah.

[00:48:20] Andony Melathopoulos: [00:48:20] Okay, fantastic. I guess in at number seven we have another small metallic bee how do you tell that apart from these metallic sweat bees?

[00:48:36] John Ascher: [00:48:36] Yeah. So these bees we can call it small carpenter bees and the genus is Ceratina and the subgenus is Zadontomerus which is a bit of a mouthful. But in the Pacific Northwest, the small carpenter bees are more or less all going to belong to this subgenus. And so we can tell them because they are elongate and cylindrical, they have a different body form, and that reflects their different method of nesting. So they're [00:49:00] actually nesting in pithy twigs or stems. And so they need to have this long cylindrical body form to fit within those constrained nests, as opposed to the ground nesting Dialictus.

[00:49:14] So the body form is a tip off, the wing veins are different, although that can be hard to see. And the shape of the head is different in the sweat bees often the head is more narrowed below and it's a more quadrate or bulkier head in the Ceratina, Zadontomerus, small carpenter bees.

[00:49:43] Andony Melathopoulos: [00:49:43] Okay, great. That's great. Yeah, I can see it. I'm looking at the image right now. It looks like it could fit in a twig. It's like made to go in a twig.

[00:49:52] John Ascher: [00:49:52] It's a bit hard to describe, but the body form in general can be helpful. Also the, the Ceratina [00:50:00] bees will have usually some yellow markings. If you look at the foreleg in particular, right at the base of the tibia. So if you look at the front leg at the very top, there's a pale spot. And in the males and in some of the females, you also see a pale spot on the face of different sizes and shapes. So whereas in the Dialictus bees you will not see these same type of pale markings on the legs and or face.

[00:50:29] Andony Melathopoulos: [00:50:29] Okay, well, that leaves us with two bees. We talked a little bit about Halictus ligatus, did you want to say anything more about it?

[00:50:38] John Ascher: [00:50:38] Yes, so Halictus ligatus can be quite difficult to identify as opposed to Halictus rubicundus, which is another common species in the region. And so again, like all of these bees, you have to look in considerable detail at the things like the head shape. Halictus ligatus has a [00:51:00] notably large head with broad cheeks that sometimes even form a bit of a tooth at the lower rear margin. So the large head of Halictus ligatus is distinctive. When you see them in life, you can tell them because of their smaller size, as opposed to some of the other black Halictus species.

[00:51:23] So moving on to the next one, the European wool carter is a completely different situation because here we have a bee that is native to Europe that has been accidentally introduced to the new world. And in the 1960's, it showed up in New York. And since then it's been spread across most of North America and it's found very abundantly in people's gardens. And the males are notable for being extremely aggressive and they'll chase off any other visitors, other than a female of their species. And they'll even attack and kill honeybees by stabbing them with the spines at the tip of their tail.

[00:51:59] So the [00:52:00] males don't have stings because they're male bees, but they do have spines that they employ as a weapon. So this is a very interesting bee and it turns out that in Oregon, there are numerous native species of the same genus Anthidium, but unfortunately as is often the case, the exotic species, which is not supposed to be in the new world at all is much more numerous than any of the native species - at least in our gardens and in our photographic documentation.

[00:52:27] Andony Melathopoulos: [00:52:27] Well, I think those are two ways that I sort of come to think of them is you see the males patrolling and they're hefty large bee and they're usually around something with some kind of tubular flower. Lamb's ear or catnip or something like that, you would never see them on an aster or something. They're really kind of specific, I see them on bird's-foot trefoil all the time.

[00:52:53] John Ascher: [00:52:53] So the males are defending different types of flowers. So some of the flowers, the males are defending are flowers that are [00:53:00] visited by the female to scrape the trichome or plant hairs that they use for nest construction. So the females get wool by scraping the plant parts of some of these flowers.

[00:53:13] Andony Melathopoulos: [00:53:13] That's the wool.

[00:53:16] John Ascher: [00:53:16] That's the wool. The wool is scraped using the mandibles, the female from these different plants, but then the females are also visiting long tubular flowers to get high quality nectar from these nectar sources, but they are visiting still some other plants for pollen. So the females will actually be visiting plants for three different purposes. And the males will be guarding all three of those floral resources. So it's a pretty complicated situation.

[00:53:46] But one thing to note about the flowers is that there are the native species will often be associated with different flowers. Like for example, azalea. And meanwhile, there's another exotic species called [00:54:00] Anthidium oblongatum, which has a slightly different color pattern. And this one is associated with other plants, like sedum and so they do overlap and they do occur on the same plant, but their preferences are, are not exactly the same.

[00:54:14] So you can use host plant as a clue to suggest what sort of an Anthidium you may be dealing with. And just going back to, how do we recognize an Anthidum? You can look at the very distinctive yellow and black colors, the spines at the tip of the tail in the male, and then the females have large many toothed mandibles that they use for scraping the wool from these plants.

[00:54:37] Andony Melathopoulos: [00:54:37] Most people wouldn't associate it with a bee it looks like yellow jacket, yellow. It's a very bright yellow.

[00:54:46] John Ascher: [00:54:46] Yeah. So I think it's fair to say that these Anthidium are mimicking some yellow jackets that live in their native Europe. So it's an interesting base where sometimes these exotic bees will [00:55:00] look exotic and it look strange because they're actually mimics of species that don't occur in our area. Although we do have yellow jackets. I haven't gone into this in detail, but most likely they are a very close match to a European species of yellow jacket, as opposed to our North American ones, because they evolve this color in Europe, not here.

[00:55:21] Andony Melathopoulos: [00:55:21] Well, fantastic. Thanks for taking us through the first ten. We'll have to have you back on again just to take us to the next ten. But this is really good. I think these are some of the most common bees and the tips that you provided on how to use iNaturalist so we can generate some more records for the state, I'm going to go back and listen to those. That was really great.

[00:55:43] John Ascher: [00:55:43] Okay, well, thanks. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to discuss these things. I'm really excited about seeing the quality of the images improving our online field guides and reference material. But in the case of Oregon, I'm extremely excited about [00:56:00] having a coverage for parts of the state like remote areas of Eastern Oregon where historically there's been very little collecting or where the collecting was done long ago. And now we can bring in new observations.

[00:56:13] And I want to bring up a couple of points that are important in Oregon and other places is that there are many places like say Crater Lake National Park or any national parks in the Pacific Northwest - where it's difficult or impossible for the general public to collect for obvious reasons. By using images people whether they're out birding or doing nature photography or looking at wildflowers, they can actually go to these protected areas, wildlife refuges, and they can document bumblebees and all of these other bees in a nondestructive way.

[00:56:50] And I think it's a solution to what otherwise would be a very intractable problem, which is that the areas where we most want to get an [00:57:00] inventory of bees and to monitor their changes are some of these protected areas. But those are the ones that are off limits to so-called casual or opportunistic collecting. And so this is one of the main reasons why I devote so much time to this is because I think it's crucial for bee conservation to get inventories in places like Eastern Oregon, and to continue to monitor areas that are not accessible to your average collector. I hope that's clear.

[00:57:25] Andony Melathopoulos: [00:57:25] Well, on behalf of many bee iNaturalist users thank you so much for all your efforts and all the other platforms as well. This is a really, I think, expanding the scope of what regular people can contribute to science. Thank you so much.

[00:57:41] John Ascher: [00:57:41] Okay. Thank you for the opportunity to discuss these things.


There is some great information being collected about Oregon bees by non-experts use phone apps like iNaturalist. In this episode we hear about how to produce a solid record and some of the top 10 bees people are finding.

Dr. John Ascher is an Assistant Professor, Department of Biological Sciences, National University Singapore (NUS). He studies global bee diversity including systematics, biogeography, and conservation, and contributes to building specimen collections and online databases including citizen science portals. Working in Singapore and previously in New York he has studied urban bee faunas and changes in these over time. His main focus recently has been completion of global taxonomic and distributional world bees but he also pursues a wide range of projects with his students and collaborators, such as studies of blue color, island biogeography, sting evolution, and population genomics of Asian bees.

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