ID GUIDE TO WILD BEES
OF THE NATIONAL BUTTERFLY CENTER
THE NATIONAL BUTTERFLY CENTER of Mission, Texas, attracts nature enthusiasts from throughout the world, who come to view its dazzling butterfly population, and its unique native and migratory birds.
in September 2018, while conducting a survey at the National Butterfly Center, this website's authors, Paula Sharp & Ross Eatman, found and photographed a red-legged leafcutter bee unlike anything they had seen before.
World bee authority John S. Ascher identified the leafcutter as belonging to a subgenus that had never been encountered previously in the United States. Dr. John L. Neff, Director of the Central Texas Melittological Institute, conferred with Dr. Ascher over the red-legged leafcutter. Checking it against American Museum of Natural History collections, Dr. Ascher pronounced the leafcutter to be Megachile cf. toluca, the first of its kind to be documented in this country.
Such is the experience of exploring the National Butterfly Center, whose special location and habitats make it a mecca for rare fauna -- unusual butterflies, birds, and now, it would seem, wild bees.
THE WILD BEES OF TEXAS
The hundred-acre National Butterfly Center is located in Hidalgo County, within the Lower Rio Grande Valley. This part of Texas reaches nearly as far south as the Florida Keys. Its climate is subtropical, and the valley is thus home to many warm-climate bee species unknown in most of the United States.
The Lower Rio Grande Valley occupies a unique ecological niche: it contains eleven distinct habitats acclaimed for their biodiversity. The valley harbors more than 1,200 documented plant species; hundreds of bird species; and distinctive mammals, among them the endangered ocelot. This environment also fosters extraordinary pollinator diversity: nearly 250 butterfly species have been documented in the National Butterfly Center alone, more than 150 of which are found only in the Lower Rio Grande Valley.
Bee populations at the National Butterfly Center are remarkably varied as well. The Lower Rio Grande Valley harbors a multitude of wild bee species that specialize on blossoming plants peculiar to the region. The valley's varied flora and long growing season also enable a broad spectrum of generalist bee species to thrive. The National Butterfly Center's proximity to canals and river beds makes it particularly well-suited to unusual bee species that rely on nearby water sources to construct nests.
The state of Texas itself is a remarkable hub for wild bees. Within the United States, East and West Coast bee populations differ greatly from another -- and Texas lies at the intersection of their two pollinator universes. Some of the National Butterfly Center bee species shown here appear as far east as New York. Others are common to California and desert habitats of the southwest. Thus, Texas offers naturalists a rare opportunity to view bee species from both sides of the continent.
All of these factors conspire to make the National Butterfly Center a phenomenal wild bee hub. The ultimate goal of this website's Wild Bee Guide is to communicate both the unusual breadth of the world of Texas pollinators -- and to show how full of surprises that world is.
NOTABLE BEES OF THE NATIONAL BUTTERFLY CENTER
Many of the bee species found at the NBC are rarely seen north of the Mexican border, or they are found exclusively or nearly exclusively in Texas. A sampling of these is shown at right: most visitors to the Lower Rio Grande Valley have never encountered such species as the Aztec cuckoo leafcutter, the crooked-legged bee, the honey-footed Exomalopsis or the Melissoptila long-horned bee. Many other unusual wild bees appear in this website's pages.
The National Butterfly Center also harbors several bee species of environmental concern. Among these is the American bumble bee (Bombus pensylvanicus). This pollinator has been categorized as a species of "greatest conservation need" under the Texas Conservation Action Plan. The International Union of Nature has placed the American bumble bee on its red list of vulnerable species.
RESEARCH & IDENTIFICATION
Photographers Paula Sharp and Ross Eatman are the authors of the highly-regarded and well-traveled website, Wild Bees of New York, the culmination of a three-year project tracking and researching northeastern bee species.
In September 2018, Sharp and Eatman turned their attention to Texas pollinators, commencing a new project documenting native bees at the National Butterfly Center.
Identifications of bees on this website are the product of the expertise and generous help of John L. Neff of the Central Texas Melittological Institute; Dr. John S. Ascher of the National University of SIngapore; and Dr. Karen Wright of Texas A & M University. Many thanks also to the American Museum of Natural History's Hadel Go for assisting in the identification of Megachile cf. toluca.
This project has been made possible by Jeffrey Glassberg, President of the North American Butterfly Association; by Marianna Trevino Wright, Executive Director of the National Butterfly Center; and through the kind assistance of the NBC's impressive staff.
For more information on photographers Paula Sharp and Ross Eatman, visit this website's About page.
The red-legged leafcutter, Megachile cf. toluca
An Aztec cuckoo leafcutter bee Coelioxys azteca)
A gulf fritillary butterfly at the National Butterfly Center
Unusual wild bees of the National Butterfly Center (Click to enlarge.)
An American bumble bee (Bombus pensylvanicus)