New insect bee-tween a rock and a hard place

I don’t write a lot about geology. I guess it’s because of the natural competition between the sciences of geology and biology for relevance and status.  Physicists and chemists seem to be at the top of the ladder and biologists and geologists are fighting for third place. Of course, it might be that I don’t write about geology much because I know so little about it. I don’t think so, though, because lack of knowledge hasn’t stopped me from writing about any other subject. 

Still, I must give geologists their due when it turns out they are relevant to biology. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t have anything personal against geologists. I have friends who are geologists. I don’t think geologists should be discriminated against in any way. Well, except maybe in research funding where biology is obviously more significant. 

To prove my point, my friend, Rich Warren, shared an article with me from the EOS, Earth and Space Science News, on “sandstone eating bees.” Well, OK, the bees don’t really eat the sandstone, but they do dig out nests in it. This new species of bee is in the genus Anthophora named Anthophora pueblo. It has been named A. pueblo because it was discovered near the Puebloan cliff dwellings in the American Southwest. 

Most people think all bees are just honey bees. But there are many varieties of bees in the world, most of whom don’t form large hives and store lots of honey. These other bees are sometimes called “solitary bees” because every female lays eggs and then tends to her own offspring. They are often found nesting in the same area because of favorable soil conditions and the tendency of the offspring to not migrate far from their hatch site. But they don’t live cooperatively the way honey bees do. 

All species of the genus Anthophora make nests in the soil. The female digs a tunnel with numerous branches and then lays eggs in each branch. She provides the egg with food for a year and then walls it off. The larvae survive on the stores, hatch and then dig their way out the following season. 

What is unusual about A. pueblo is that they literally excavate their tunnels in sandstone cliffs. These bees use their mandibles to dig a network of tunnels into sandstone walls in which to lay their eggs and grow their young. They sometimes soften the carbonite crystals that cement the sand grains together by carrying water to the excavation site, making the rock easier to “chew.” 

I suppose it is a hard life, mining sandstone for nesting. But having a durable home has its benefits, as well. The sandstone protects the bees from heavy rains and flash floods. Also, common bee parasites are inhibited by the inaccessibility of the nests. 

Digging sandstone is a pretty neat trick, yet information on this species is only now being published. A. pueblo were actually discovered almost 40 years ago by Frank Parker, but he didn’t publish a report on his findings. Michael Orr, a doctoral student at Utah State University, came across Parker’s rock samples. He and Parker re-found the colonies and discovered five new ones. 

What’s so exciting about this is that there is finally a use for all the sandstone waste here in the Southwest. I mean, we have miles and miles of the Wingate Sandstone and Kayenta Formation around here. Geologists have been unable to find any practical use for it, so it has been left to the biological world to save the day once again! 

Oh, sure, sandstone is pretty to look at, and I am told it makes great biking and hiking trails. I am not sure if raising sandstone-digging bees will ever become commercially successful. Obviously, more research is needed. But we biologists are way ahead of the geologists in this business.

Gary McCallister, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address), is a professor emeritus of biological sciences at Colorado Mesa University.


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