The blue calamintha bee is not your average pollinator. While most bees collect pollen on their legs and abdomen, the blue calamintha uses its head, which is specially equipped with modified hairs. “This bee is a metallic blue, grabs the flower it is visiting, and bobs its head rapidly, collecting excessive amounts of pollen on its face,” says Dr. Chase Kimmel, a researcher at the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville. Unlike hive builders like the honeybee, the blue calamintha is solitary and nests alone. It’s also extremely rare, limited to a single Florida ecosystem, and hadn’t been seen since 2016—until Kimmel and his team documented it this spring.
“We were not sure where or if we would find the bee,” Kimmel says. While putting up nest boxes in central Florida in the hopes of attracting it, he saw a flash of reflective blue among the flowers of an Ashe’s calamint plant, the bee’s namesake and itself a threatened species in Florida. After dashing to the car to grab nets and cameras, Kimmel caught the insect and was able to identify the first live blue calamintha he’d ever seen. “I was second guessing myself since I had to Iook at it under a hand lens in the field as it was fighting me back,” Kimmel says, laughing. He’s since found more of the bees, but they’re by no means abundant—Kimmel documented seventeen in total over the spring. “It can take days of searching a location to find a single bee, and sometimes you still find none.”
This week marks National Pollinator Week (June 22–28), and while the rediscovery of the blue calamintha is a cause for celebration, pollinators have seen declines in recent years. A pollinator is anything that moves pollen from flower to flower, including butterflies, hummingbirds, grasshoppers, and of course, bees, which are some of the most highly efficient pollinators. “It is a symbiotic relationship in that the insects need the pollen to feed their young, and the plants themselves need that pollen to be going from flower to flower to get more genetic diversity in order to produce a better, healthier seed,” Kimmel explains. In turn, humans rely on the fruits and vegetables born of that relationship, and, as Kimmel points out, “the way that our agricultural system works, the meat that we consume also fed on something pollinated by a pollinator.”
The challenges pollinators face are myriad: Pesticide and agrochemical use, habitat loss and degradation, diseases, climate change, and air pollution are all thought to be contributing factors in their decline. Monocropping, the practice of using a large tract of land for a single crop, has hit honeybees particularly hard as there is no flower diversity for the bees to feed on.
The continuing presence of the blue calamintha bee, though rare, is an exciting find in the Lake Wales Ridge ecosystem, an ancient sand ridge that exists in pockets of pine scrub running through central Florida. When the rest of the state was still underwater several million years ago, the ridge created isolated islands where species could evolve. Though the already patchy habitat has become further fragmented due to human development, it remains a biodiversity hotspot in the state. “This habitat as a whole is endemic to Florida and is home to many more threatened and endangered species than just the bee, including gopher tortoises and scrub jays,” Kimmel says.
The research by Kimmel and his team at the museum is part of a two-year grant from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to find out the bee’s distribution, rough population numbers, feeding and nesting habits, and habitat usage. And while the blue calamintha is a living example of the incredible diversity of pollinators, it’s also a reminder of the work still to be done to protect them. “We are trying to do our part to better understand these organisms and ecosystems so we can better help them for future generations,” Kimmel says. Hopefully, those generations, too, will get to see the flash of metallic blue from a bee with a face full of pollen.