Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Take the Subway, Discover a New Species

Photo: Lynn Pady, Toronto
How many of us have discovered a new species just while commuting to work? Well, this guy has:
A York University doctoral student who discovered a new species of bee on his way to the lab one morning has completed a study that examines 84 species of sweat bees in Canada. Nineteen of these species – including the one Jason Gibbs found in downtown Toronto − are new to science because they have never been identified or described before.

Gibbs’ expansive study will help scientists track bee diversity, understand pollination biology and study the evolution of social behaviour in insects. It is also much anticipated by bee taxonomists who, like Gibbs, painstakingly examine the anatomy (morphology) of bees to distinguish one type of bee from another. (from York University press release)

Species descriptions of all 84 sweat bees Gibbs examined have been published in the journal Zootaxa.

Sweat bees are named for their attraction to perspiration, and are apparently quite challenging to identify. They're small, less than 4 mm in length, and their physical characteristics are similar to other species. It's also evolved rapidly since first appearing about 20 million years ago. 

Yet it's important that scientists can identify sweat bees. The make up nearly half of bees collected in North American biodiversity surveys and they're significant as pollinators.

More from the press release:
Among the 19 new species of sweat bee identified by Gibbs is one that he collected on his commute from downtown Toronto to York University. When he arrived at his York lab and examined it, he knew he had found a new species, never before identified by science but, as it turns out, quite common in Toronto and throughout eastern Canada and the USA. He also identified and described 18 other species from Canada that are new to science including a cuckoo bee: like a cuckoo bird, it doesn’t build a nest or collect food but it has big mandibles for fighting. This cuckoo sweat bee is believed to invade the nest of another sweat bee species to lay its eggs on the pollen and nectar collected by its host.

Gibbs isn't the only York U researcher with the buzz on bees (sorry). Laurence Packer is a York professor of biology with a new book, Keeping the Bees.

It's billed as love story with a serious social message; Packer reveals the mysterious world of bees and what our world would be like without them -- which is becoming a frightening possibility as bee populations decline planetwide.

The book also opens a window into the strange, and adventurous world of the melittogist, or student of wild bees. Squeamy image of the day: one researcher allowing a stingless bee that feeds on tears to lick his eyeballs -- all in the name of science!


LivingInAurora.ca said...

Wow, you never know what you will find, amazing story. Nice to hear Toronto name. Anna :)