PALO ALTO, Calif. (CBS NEWS) – People who study insects have been in turmoil lately after a most unlikely discovery – and the amateur entomologist who made it.
A 4-year-old girl with a gift for nature found two colonies of rare stingless bees, creatures scientists thought were long extinct and no adults had managed to notice.
Annika Arnout’s mastery of nature baffles many adults, in large part thanks to biologist Targe Lindsey. He is her tutor, brought in by her parents when she was 3 months old so Annika could explore nature in her neighborhood in Palo Alto, California.
But this year Annika – now a seasoned naturalist – found tiny bugs that weren’t just any bugs. His discovery was forwarded to the Plant Parasite Diagnostics Branch of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, where Dr. Martin Hauser is a senior insect biosystematist.
The insects found by Annika are stingless bees that aren’t meant to be here – they live in Brazil and are much smaller than the average bee. Annika found the bugs in an undisclosed location, which she did not disclose in order to protect her “special place”.
Decades ago, the United States Department of Agriculture researched bees to increase the size of fruit and vegetable crops.
“In 1950 the USDA asked a Brazilian researcher to send them bee colonies to see, to have alternative pollinators,” Hauser said. “He sent them in the 1950s to Gainesville, Florida, Logan, Utah, and Davis and Palo Alto. And he said all the bees died in a year.
“They didn’t like the cold in Utah. They couldn’t compete in Florida, ”he added.
They also went to Stanford professor George Shafer in Palo Alto. According to Hauser, only the colonies sent to Dr. Shafer survived Palo Alto for eight years. The bees went unnoticed for 70 years, until a 4-year-old girl noticed them this year.
“It shows us that when you get a new perspective with a child’s eyes, she just looked at that and she – there’s something different about these bees,” he said.
The stingless bees Annika had found were certainly the descendants of those imported as USDA pollinators. They were presumed dead and had no representative in Dr Hauser’s vast collection.
In fact, Hauser hadn’t even heard of Brazil’s stingless bees until almost 20 years ago. He said he received a quote from a “pest control man” in Palo Alto and initially thought it was a practical joke.
The guy was Richard Schmidt, who was asked by a Palo Alto owner to get rid of the buzzing bugs in his garden. Schmidt says he didn’t kill them – instead, he sent a few to the county agriculture department.
“I had never seen them before,” Schmidt said. “I captured a few, I sent them to our county [Agriculture] department. They didn’t know what they were. And so, they sent it to the state.
Hauser later realized that his identification was wrong and sent the bees to various experts around the world, but they were all puzzled.
“They all said, ‘Where did you find him?’ and I said, ‘Palo Alto’, ”he said. “And finally he found out that it was a species described in 1900 by a German bee researcher.”
After it cracked the case, the tree toppled over and the bees were gone. Only one remaining piece has been incorporated into his collection – that’s all he had to do until this year, when Annika’s Bees became social media stars on iNaturalist, a website that posted photos taken by Targe.
Hauser was impressed with Annika’s discovery.
“I was very impressed that she found two settlements,” he said. “It’s very amazing that she found two and all the scientists didn’t find one.”
For Dr Hauser, if bees are a rare find, so is Annika. It was important for him to meet her, and he was happy to do so. He encourages children to be more curious about nature like he was when he was a child.
When they first met, he gave her the biggest book of insects he could find with a sweet note that read, “To Annika, for many more discoveries to come.”
But Annika’s bees aren’t in the book. Even after more than 100 years of chance sightings, the bees still go unnamed, although it has been suggested that the stingless bees of Brazil are referred to as “Annika’s bees.”
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