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All Hail, Hylaeus! The Bee Who Comes Disguised

Masked Bee May 21
A bee successfully identified as belonging to the genus Hylaeus, or masked bees, foraging on our native Sedum ternatum.

By Lisa Brunette

I fell hard for the bees last year when I joined a citizen-science program called Shutterbee. So I signed up again this year, and... I think my crush has grown into a full-blown obsession!

Shutterbee is jointly sponsored by my alma mater's Billiken Bee Lab, Webster University, and the Missouri Botanical Garden, with several other funding sources as well. Volunteers like me conduct 20- to 30-minute bee studies in our gardens at the pace of about once a week or biweekly throughout the summer. By "study," I mean we move along a set path, keeping to the same path each time, in our gardens, photographing bees. We then upload the photos to an app called iNaturalist, where we tag the photos for researchers to include in their data.

The modest masked bee in the photo above is one of the first I took when we kicked off the project this past May. It gets its name from the facial coloring, suggestive of a "mask," which, when you think about it, makes this the perfect bee for our time. Here's another view of the same genus of bee, with the mask more visible.

Masked Bee May 21 2
Hylaeus, this time on sage flowers.

Hylaeus nest in wood or the stems of plants, so if you'd like to see more of these masked beauties in your garden, don't be so quick to clean up in the fall. We leave dead stems right where they are; scientists recommend until the following May, but we experimented by leaving them up all summer, and you know what? We didn't mind them at all. As soon as the green foliage comes in at the peak of summer, the dead stems are covered over anyway. Nature has its own cleaning mechanism.

The bee above is female, as identified by the two triangle markings near her eyes, sometimes called "devil horns." Other bees in the genus have markings on the thorax resembling the epaulets on military coats.

Hylaeus leptocephalus
Hylaeus leptocephalus, or slender-faced masked bee, on our native hydrangea.

One thing you might have noticed in these photos is that the bees do not show any pockets of pollen on their bodies the way you'll see with other bees, especially bumblebees. Hylaeus is nearly hairless, with no pollen-collecting bits on their exteriors. Instead, they collect pollen in a part of their body called a crop. Sometimes called a "honey stomach," the crop is a spherical repository in the bee's abdomen.

Hylaeus leptocephalus was first discovered in the Americas in the 1900s, when it was identified in the Dakotas. It's likely not a native bee, and it's often found in weedy, disturbed areas. So nothing to get too excited about if you're studying bees for the purpose of creating native habitat to support native bees. But it's all part of the science, and who can deny how pretty these tiny little Hylaeus bees are?

Here's another Hylaeus, this one modestus, or yellow-faced masked bee.

Hylaeus modestus
On our native Rattlesnake master.

I reached a high ranking of No. 11 out of 228 Shutterbee observers this summer for the number of successful observations I've made, which at the peak of the summer hit 334 total of 23 different species. So, yeah. Obsessed.

Shutterbee No 11

 

Of course, as a gamer, I can't help the desire to move up in the rankings. Next year, I crack the top 10!

If you're in the St. Louis, Missouri, metropolitan area, I recommend joining Shutterbee. If you're not, I'm sure there are other bee programs near you; just search on 'bee atlas,' or 'bee study volunteer,' and your region. Participating in studies like these takes very little of your own time, it's a great way to get outside and learn about the natural world, and it also makes you feel like you're doing something to help turn the tide against declining bee populations.

Want to read more of our posts about the Shutterbee program?

Interested in bees in general?

What did your garden teach you this summer? Tell us in the comments below.

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