Trying to identify wild bees is a humbling pursuit in which every success is matched with two or three dismal failures. Today was no exception.
Earlier in the week I stopped at the Mima Prairie Visitor Center, armed with my camera and longest lens. I strolled among the mysterious mounds, looking for whatever I might find in the way of bees. As luck would have it, I came across an aggregation of small black bees, many of whom were foraging on buttercups.
When I finally managed to capture some photos, I noticed right away that these creatures, which looked just like small Andrena bees, had only two submarginal cells in their forewings. I was elated. Here was something new to me. A new bee for my photographic collection.
Forcing my observations to fit
I came home, enlarged the photos on the computer screen and spent hours—literally—trying to figure out what this bee was. The very first genus I eliminated was Andrena because Andrena have three submarginal cells, not two.
Trouble was, none of the two-celled varieties looked right, but I convinced myself it had to belong to one of the two-celled genera. I finally decided on a genus (I won’t say which, since it was wrong) and sent it in to BugGuide for confirmation. Bad idea.
What is so humbling is not the fact that I was wrong, but the fact that I was so bull-headed. Everything about this bee screamed Andrena, including the shape of the head, the facial fovea, the hair distribution, and the body shape. But did I listen to myself? No. Did I pay attention to my gut feeling? No. Instead I made the bee fit into a genus that didn’t fit at all. I convinced myself that I was seeing the attributes of another genus, even though I wasn’t. I had convinced myself to be wrong.
The bee, it turns out, was in a subgenus of Andrena called Diandrena or, more commonly, the two-celled Andrena. You could have knocked me over with a feather. I’d never heard of such a thing. If I had listened to my misgivings and researched further into the Andrenidae, I would have discovered this anomaly all by myself. Instead I broadcast my ignorance to the world and felt like a complete idiot.
It happens to beekeepers, too
Good comes of embarrassing moments, however. It reminds us that, especially in scientific inquiry, it is easy to want a result so bad we start to see things that aren’t there. We come to conclusions that are not rational. It happens to scientists and investigators all the time: we want a particular answer so badly we believe we see evidence for it.
I’m convinced we are currently seeing a lot of this phenomenon in varroa control. Substance X will eliminate varroa mites. Protocol Y will mean you never have to treat. Subspecies Z is completely immune. Sometimes these answers show potential in the statistics and sometimes they don’t. But it is easy to want to believe in something so much that we convince ourselves it is true, regardless of the facts.
I point this out merely as a reminder that, as beekeepers, we must maintain a healthy skepticism when presented with new concepts, ideas, or gadgets, especially those that will easily fix all our problems. We must be receptive to new ideas, of course, but when our BS detector beeps loudly, we need to stop and listen. Not every new idea is a good one, and it is up to us to sort them out.
Honey Bee Suite