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Club helps prepare bees for scientific study

  • Nate Cunfer has poured his bees into the screened top of a jar. They will be placed in the net bag and dried with a hair drier.
    Nate Cunfer has poured his bees into the screened top of a jar. They will be placed in the net bag and dried with a hair drier.
Published January 24. 2014 05:00PM

The Naturalist Club of the Lehigh Gap Nature Center, Slatington, was promised it would be doing real science when it was formed by youth interested in nature.

On Monday, four young people joined Dr. Anita M. Collins, a retired research geneticist, to learn about bees and prepare some of them to be sent to the Department of Agriculture.

The club members learned there is also a slight chance that one or more of the bees will make it into the Smithsonian Institution. However, it would have to be a new species or a very rare one.

Collins, who had a professorship in genetics worked with bees. After she retired from Kutztown University, she began working with native bees.

She explained that there is a Xerxes Society that teaches farmers and gardeners to aid pollinators such as bees by creating nesting sites for them through planting native plants.

Collins said east of the Mississippi River there had been no study of bees for 100 years.

The club members who attended, Tom Zukowski, Nate Cunfer, Wyatt Trantham and Kelci Knirnschild, helped Collins wash the bees that had been captured.

The process consists of putting out cups colorfully painted on the inside to imitate flowers. The cups have soapy water in them and are left out for 24 hours.

The soap, Dawn Blue which has no additives, prevents the bees from escaping the water. The cups are placed nine strides apart.

Collins explained that the common honey bee is not a native, but was brought over by early settlers who knew they were good pollinators.

Club members were able to name many of the native bees including wool gatherers, polyester, orchard mason, carpenter, bumble, leaf cutter, sweat and cuckoo.

The cuckoo is a parasite laying its eggs in another bee's nest. In fact, in the earlier study, there was a cuckoo bee found in 1922 and named nomada lehighensis.

It was named for the Lehigh Gap where it was found and has not been seen since.

Pollination is a byproduct of the bees' collection of nectar, a carbohydrate food, and pollen, a protein food. The bees have fluffy hair on their legs that collects the pollen.

"Nectar is nectar," said center director Dan Kunkle, "but pollen is specific to certain bees."

There are 4,000 types of bees in North America and 20,000 in the world. Many have not been named, but 345 in Pennsylvania have been identified.

The females lay their eggs, place a mix of pollen and nectar in the nest, and leave. Most bees will not sting, though some bite.

Collins handed each club member a packet of insects with a label showing where and when they were captured.

The packet contained some alcohol to preserve them.

The alcohol is poured off and the bees placed in a one-cup jar with a drop of Dawn and water, which is shaken up.

By turning the jar upside down, the bees fall to a screen in the top and are placed in a net bag where they are dried with a hair dryer.

Collins said they have to be thoroughly dry because checking the hair is part of the method of identification.

Many of the insects in the packets are wasps or flies. One packet did not contain any bees.

Bees have two pair of wings and have cones (where they carry pollen) and spurs.

Club members were asked to decide if the insects were bees or another insect.

The bees are pinned and placed in a box with the label that was in the packet. When one is too small to pin, it will be glued to the pin.

Collins does the initial identification but even she has been stumped occasionally and has to ask for help.

She said she expects they will begin to find rare bees because the Nature Center is planting rare plants that may attract them.

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