The Specialists

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Sam Droege is Taking a Very Close Look at Native Bees.

By Maggie Zackowitz

Sam Droege’s lab at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center does not have a street address. To get there, you count the miles down a winding Maryland road, looking for the seventh in a series of gates (#6 is unnumbered) set into the tall wire fence alongside. Punch the code into a keypad for the gate once you find it, drive up the hill, and hang a sharp left. There sits a low building in a yard of waving grass and wildflowers, encircled by another high fence—this one electrified. It’s a remnant of security for the yard’s former occupants: whooping cranes once raised here to repopulate the species.

“The fencing wasn’t to keep the cranes in so much as keep the predators out,” explains Droege, a wildlife biologist. These days the compound’s objects of study aren’t luring the local carnivores. What’s inside, in fact, are stacks and stacks of pizza boxes. They are filled with bees.

First, the bees are drowned. Cup traps filled with soapy water are placed in sunny areas near blooming plants; the bees cooperate by falling in. Their bodies are then gently washed clean of pollen and dust, dried, assigned bar codes, labeled with date and place of collection, and pinned by the dozens to the floor of the protective pizza boxes to await identification. Bees are sent here by bee collectors from all over the world. “We’re up to over half a million specimens,” says Droege, who has run the United States Geological Survey’s Native Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab (NBIML) for some 20 years.

Andrena distans, female (geranium specialist). Image courtesy of the USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab.

His original task was to monitor bee populations. His specialty is developing wildlife survey techniques, which is part of the USGS’s work in biology and ecosystems. But to differentiate one tiny bee from another, you have to be able to see every flange and mouthpart. That’s why Droege started taking ultra-high-resolution photographs of the insects. His tabletop studio consists of a black velvet backdrop draped inside a Styrofoam beer cooler, inside a cardboard box, into which he pokes a Canon Mark II camera. He likes the bees to look their best for their portraits: “I have a whole cleaning station with a little airbrush. We’ll rewash the specimen. I’ll airbrush out the hair, and comb it and brush it. I call myself a bee wedding photographer.”

He’s also the curator of what has become a virtual bee museum. “We have identification guides for all the bees from the Midwest to the East, and many going all the way across the continent. That’s 4,000 species, and each sex looks different.” For anyone wanting to identify a bee, he says, “The best thing is to compare the specimen you have to a specimen in a museum. But most museums are probably shut or not available anymore. So the next best things are really high-quality shots that allow you to drill into all the details, like the microstructure of the tongue.”

Osmia distincta, female (penstemon specialist). Image courtesy of the USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab.

The collection of digital bee photos eventually grew too large to house on NBIML servers. “At some point our research center said, ‘We can’t handle all these big files, but you can put them up on Flickr,’” the free, public image-hosting website. Then the bees got famous. In 2013, a stoner-friendly Reddit group known as “r/woahdude” posted several of Droege’s Flickr images online.

“Someone had grabbed a bunch of our pictures—I thought they had chosen some nice ones—but they gave no attributions. It just said, ‘Magnificent Bees,’” he says. “In two days, it got 200,000 views. These people would never, ever go to one of my lectures. They would never read the literature. There is no way I could ever reach them—except this!” An Instagram feed for the bee pictures followed (it currently has more than 13,000 followers), as well as a Tumblr account. Now, he says, “We’re closing in on 50 million views on Flickr.”

Droege is especially interested in the bees he calls the specialists: native bees that feed only on the pollen and nectar of a single kind of flowering plant. These bees—not honeybees—do most native plant pollination. “Why do pumpkin and other squash blossoms open super early in the morning and close by nine? Because that’s their target bee who is out at predawn, doing almost all the pollination. And then it closes up. We might see a honeybee on it later, but it’s actually the specialist bee doing all the work. If you had no squash, that bee would be gone. It can’t just go work on carrots or clover.”

Megachile xylocopoides, male (composite specialist). Image courtesy of the USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab.

Monoculture agriculture and the popularity of nonnative species have put many of these specialists at risk. Landscape architects can help support them by using native plants whenever possible. Also, “the more diversity of plants that you put into your landscape, the better. The greater the proportion of the area that has these plants— i.e., reduction of lawn—is good,” he says. “The key in our naturalized areas is maintaining this biodiversity of plants. The management of bees, and the saving of bees, is all about the saving of landscapes and creating landscapes that retain high diversity of native plants, particularly blooming plants.”

And what about chemicals? “The safest thing,” he says, “if you’re completely bee-centric, is not to use anything. Even fertilizers. These native plants are not something that require rich soil. Usually with the fertilizers, you’re augmenting the cool-season grasses and the competitors with the objective to close in some of these bare spots. But some of those bare spots are really important nesting spots for bees.”

Sam Droege. Photo by Gregg Patrick Photography.

“There’s a very broad statement to be made that each baby bee just needs five flowers’ worth of pollen and nectar,” Droege says. “So I reverse that, and I say, when you’re mowing your lawn, or cleaning up your woods and cutting down those plants, just count the number of flowers and divide by five and you’ll know how many bees you got rid of that year.”

See more bees at

Maggie Zackowitz is the managing editor at the magazine. 

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