By Frances Figart
|New pollinators like the cellophane-cuckoo bee have moved into the Smokies after the Chimney Tops II fires. Photo courtesy of Will Kuhn|
Great Smoky Mountains National Park has a new bee. It’s a variety of cellophane-cuckoo bee called Epeolus inornatus discovered by researchers studying how the 2016 Chimney Tops II fires affected the park.
This little newbie (new bee) brings the Smokies species tally to 21,081 for Discover Life in America (DLiA) which manages the All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory (ATBI), a groundbreaking effort that began almost 23 years ago to identify and try to understand every species living within the park.
“This is the first time that this bee species has ever been reported in Great Smoky Mountains National Park,” said Will Kuhn, DLiA’s director of science and research. “While it's probably been around the park before now, it was only discovered because we wanted to know how the park’s ecosystem is recovering from the fires.”
Those fires swept across the landscape in late November of 2016, opening up hillside slopes that had been forested before. As a result, more flowering plants are beginning to flourish in new territory, attracting a new group of diverse pollinators to those charred woods, among them Epeolus inornatus.
Cellophane-cuckoo bees are so named because their behavior somewhat mimics that of the parasitic Cuckoo bird, who leaves its own eggs in other birds’ nests for them to raise as their own. Cellophane-cuckoo bees are all “cleptoparasites” of the cellophane bees (genus Colletes).
Unlike the social honey or bumble bees, cellophane bees are solitary. Female cellophane bees dig little nests in the ground for their offspring. They make a tiny cell, fill it with pollen for their larvae to eat, then lay an egg and seal the cell up with a glue-like material that dries to resemble cellophane. It protects their eggs from mold and moisture.
|The cellophane-cuckoo bees is so named because its behavior somewhat mimics that of the parasitic Cuckoo bird. Photo courtesy of Will Kuhn|
Like the notorious Cuckoo, cellophane-cuckoo bees cheat the system. They sneak into Colletes nests, cut a little hole in a cell’s cellophane wrapper, lay their own egg, reseal, and leave without collecting any pollen to provide for the larva. The cellophane-cuckoo bee egg hatches first and devours its host's egg and all the delicious pollen they left for their own young.
“Our record of this species is from an event called the Fire Recovery Bioblitz, which we held in summer 2019,” said Kuhn. “We were trying to compare insects between a heavily burned site and a minimally burned one. I posted a photo of this bee on iNaturalist, and it was identified by Thomas Onuferko, who is the scientist that first described Epeolus inornatus. Our observation is the first record of this species on the easy-to-use iNaturalist app!”
Through bioblitzes and other events, some of the world's leading scientists have contributed to the ATBI, along with park staff, educators, and volunteer citizen scientists. Together they have found 10,412 species new to the park and 1,028 species completely new to science! Researching little-studied life forms—like the newbie cellophane-cuckoo bee—helps park leaders make better management decisions for enjoyment of future generations.
“Major events like the Chimney Tops II fires have cascading effects, and we don't always know which way things will turn out,” said Kuhn. “This is a testament to the importance of the All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory. We need to learn how the park's ecosystems bounce back from previous natural disasters so that we can predict the effects of future disturbances, like climate change.”
Resources to check out:
Learn about DLiA’s ongoing research at dlia.org.
Families and classrooms can learn about DLiA through the Smokies Species-a-Day perpetual calendar.