Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Urban Sweat Bees

Lipotriches sweat bee- Wikimedia
The term "sweat bee" generally refers to bees that are attracted to the salt in human sweat, especially those of the Halictidae family.  These small critters, generally measuring 4-8mm, are annoying when they not only slurp your sweat but frequently want to share your sweetened drink.  Humans are their preferred source because of our high concentration of salts in our perspiration.  (Note to self- cut back on salt.)

They only tend to sting when you slap or grab them and their sting ranks only as a one on the four point Schmidt Sting Pain Index.  If you are not familiar with this Michelin-like guide to insect stings and bites you might want to look it up here.

Schmidt describes the sweat bee sting as "Light, ephemeral, almost fruity. A tiny spark has singed a single hair on your arm."  Compare this to a 3.0 paper wasp sting which is "Caustic and burning. Distinctly bitter aftertaste. Like spilling a beaker of hydrochloric acid on a paper cut."  My red wasp sting experience last Sunday was more full bodied with the throb of a dense Merlot.  As my mother used to say ""Each to his own taste," said the woman as she kissed her cow."

Jason Gibbs- Cornell University
This all started with reading about a newly discovered sweat bee the size of a sesame seed.  We tend to think of the hunt for new species as requiring a pith helmet and an inconveniently located jungle.  For Jason Gibbs of Cornell University, it just required an insect net and a walk in the park.  He discovered this tiny creature in Brooklyn and the story was written up in this Wall Street Journal article.

We tend to think of New York City as a sterile urban environment with Central Park as an island of tamed wild life.  Certainly it has had Pale Male, the famous red-tailed hawk, and their park system works to protect their wildlife including deer, raccoon and the odd coyote.

The Waldorf-Astoria New York hotel now has its own resident beekeeper who harvests honey from roof top hives in an effort to be greener than the competition.  These are European honeybees which likely adds panache to a ritzy hotel menu.  The city also has bees, more than 250 documented species of native bees in its sidewalk cracks, median strips and apartment planters, pollinating away.
"As an urban wilderness, New York City continues to surprise field biologists. Not so long ago, museum bug hunters discovered a new genus of centipedes—perhaps the world's smallest—under the fallen leaves in Central Park. In 2009, a new species of cockroach turned up in a West Side supermarket. Earlier this year, researchers at Rutgers University and the University of California identified a previously unknown species of leopard frog whose natural range centers on Yankee Stadium." ( WSJ).
So what does this have to do with Missouri?  As humans continue to impact the earth's ecology, it is comforting to know that nature adapts, even in what we might assume is a hostile, big city environment.  We may be anxious on the dark streets of New York City at night but the tiny Lasioglossum gotham isn't.

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