The Oregon Bee Atlas just got bigger.
In an update announced this month, the largest bee and plant database in the state added hundreds of new native bee species that were discovered all over the state.
The atlas was created because of a lack of information available about the state’s bee populations. The program’s scientists collect data from each county with help from trained volunteers who collect bee specimens. In the latest update, they added 224 unique bee species to their list from data collected in 2019, increasing the number of known native bees in Oregon to 650.
Oregon Bee Atlas taxonomist Lincoln Best said most bees either live in smaller groups or by themselves and often visit just one plant species their whole lives. So, discovering new bees also means knowing which plants are important for their survival and where to focus conversation efforts.
“One of the greatest conservation actions you can have is either conserving plant populations and plant communities or by restoring areas that have been damaged with native plants,” Best said. “So it is important which native plants you choose.”
Best said it’s likely there are hundreds of bees in the state that haven’t been discovered yet. The more engagement and interest they get from volunteers and citizen scientists around the state, he said, the quicker they can gather and expand their data. For 2019, volunteers submitted 25,022 bee specimens across all Oregon counties.
The collection process includes capturing the bee, taking photos of where it was found and studying the specimen over the winter. Volunteers are trained to identify the bee species, document how it was collected and which plant it was attracted to, and then pin it down and label it like they did in 18th century insect collections, Best said.
“Oregon is kind of at the forefront of these types of large, almost industrial scale biodiversity inventory and monitoring, and it’s allowing us to share this infrastructure with other states and Canadian provinces,” Best said.
Oregon State University Department of Integrative Biology curator Chris Marshall said while it takes time to go over each year’s new data, having trained volunteers is essential. He said as more discoveries are made, the data become more refined.
“It’s like comparing a grainy old Xeroxed photograph of a blurry photograph to a high-resolution color digital image,” he said. “Each specimen is a pixel, one tiny observation but when you put them together, you can really begin to see the patterns of biodiversity and that’s necessary for us to monitor its health.”
Marshall said he hopes the data and its collection method will be helpful for other states and countries to begin their own datasets and share their information worldwide.