WildLands Citizen Science: Bee Poo Science

Text and Photos by Tom Schroeder

You have got to love Bee Poo Science. I recently had the opportunity to do a Citizen Science project as part of KC WildLands volunteer work. In 2016 and 2017, a Native Bee Survey was done on KC WildLand sites. It uncovered a population of the Snail Nesting Mason Bee at one of the sites. This is a rare specialist bee that is only known to nest in abandoned snail shells. It bites off little bits of leaf material and lines the snail shell to make a cozy nest. Little else is known about it. That makes it difficult for site managers to know how to conserve this amazing bee. That is where Bee Poo Science comes into play. Out in the prairie, snails are hidden by all the vegetation. Even if you know they live there, they are VERY hard to find, but after a section of prairie is burned, snail shells become visible on the bare ground. In December 2019 the area in which this bee was found was burned. I started examining the exposed snail shells for evidence that nestled deep inside there was a bee nest. Pick up a shell, put down the shell, pick up a shell, put down the shell. After more than fifty shells, I was able to identify a few that had potential and mailed them to a bee scientist. I quickly got the exciting confirmation I had found some nests. Now the Bee Poo Science could begin. Mother bees gather pollen from flowers, make a pile of it in the nest and lay one egg on it. The egg hatches into a cute little larva, like a caterpillar, and eats the pollen. When it reaches a certain size, it poops for the first time, and then spins a cocoon. Inside the cocoon, it develops into an adult. In the nests that I found, the scientist found cocoons with the bee larva poo lying outside them. He is going to make a slurry of the poo and examine it under a high definition microscope. Since the larva cannot digest the outer shell of the pollen, he can look at the shapes of the pollen shells and determine the plants the pollen was collected from by the mother bee. He can then let the site managers know what plants are important to conserve to benefit this bee. Bee Poo Science in action!

A lot more scientific examination will be done with these bee nests because this is the first time they have ever been scientifically described. As a volunteer Citizen Scientist, I could use my general knowledge of bees and the WildLand sites to find the nests. Then the professional scientist can bring out the power of Bee Poo Science.