Author of The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire, etc.

C.M. Mayo < Digital Media < Podcasts < Marfa Mondays <

Transcript #5

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Announcer: Welcome to "Marfa Mondays" with your host, award-winning travel writer and novelist, C.M. Mayo.


C.M. Mayo: Welcome to the fifth podcast in the series of 24 podcasts exploring Marfa, Texas and environs, apropos of a book I'm writing about my travels in far West Texas. I'm recording this in May of 2012, so if you're listening sometime in the future, I hope you may find my book with a title and already published, in which case, I invite you to visit my website, cmmayo.com, to read all about it.

From my webpage you can also learn more about my other books, which include Miraculous Air: Journey of a Thousand Miles through Baja California, the Other Mexico and my anthology of 24 Mexican writers on Mexico, Mexico: A Traveler's Literary Companion, and of course, on cmmayo.com you can read all about this podcast series and listen in anytime to the podcasts, which so far include interviews with wilderness expert and travel writer, Charles Angell in the Big Bend; Mary Bones of the Museum of the Big Bend on The Lost Art Colony; and Avram Dumitrescu, a wonderfully talented artist who paints landscapes, cars, donkeys, and— brilliantly— chickens.

I've started my travels with a focus of the landscape. Towards that end, when I was in the area in January of this year, I interviewed Cynthia McAlister, who has done extensive research on insects, and in particular, bees, which are a passion of mine as you'll learn in the interview. Cynthia McAlister holds a Master's degree in Biology from Sul Ross State University in Alpine. Sul Ross State University, being the most important university in the Big Bend and Alpine being the largest town, and only a short drive in US 90 East from Marfa.

I first learned about her research when I read her article in the winter 2012 issue of Cenizo Journal: "Our West Texas Native Bee." You can read her article, by the way, on the website of Cenizo Journal, www.cenizojournal.com. In Cenizo Journal, McAlister's biographical note reads in part, "She enjoys poking her head into flowers to look for bees and sharing her bee experiences with others." So I thought, wouldn't she be fun to talk to?


C.M. Mayo: Thank you so much for being here with me today.

Cynthia McAlister: Thank you for asking me.

C.M. Mayo: Well, when and how did you get interested in bees?

Cynthia McAlister: Well, that is a little story. When I took a summer class— I was a botany student, I was mostly interested in botany, but I took entomology for the heck of it and for the interest and I fell absolutely head over heels in love with entomology and really looking through the great dissecting microscopes and being able to look at the morphology of these little creatures was, it just took my breath away.

And at the end of that semester, my professor found out that he and a colleague, Dr. [Cathryn] Hoyt, from the Chihuahuan Desert Research Institute, had actually received a grant that they had applied for jointly and the grant was to look at the pollinators of the Northern Chihuahuan Desert Region. There were a lot of components in that grant, but one thing that they needed was one graduate student who would be willing to collect and identify insect pollinators at the Chihuahuan Desert Institute's botanical gardens. And my advisor asked me if I would be interested in that position— a two-year paid opportunity— to do the research that I had just realized I was interested in and of course, I said yes!

So in the late part of the summer of 2006, I was in the CDRI's botanical gardens every day, practically, wandering around with my insect net and my kill jar and trying to figure out how to be an entomologist and collecting all these different kinds of insects that were at flowers and taking them back to the lab and pinning them out, looking at them under the microscope. It was just a joy for that to be my job.

C.M. Mayo: I've been there. The Chihuahuan Desert Research Center or Nature Center, botanical gardens, I was there yesterday and I was so impressed. It's on the road between Alpine and Fort Davis, getting close to Fort Davis. Something like, what, 500 acres?

Cynthia McAlister: Yes, 507 acres.

C.M. Mayo: And you can hike down a canyon to a spring.

Cynthia McAlister: Yes.

C.M. Mayo: I did that hike. It's spectacular. I thought oh, that's nice, there's a little canyon and I'll see a spring. That's nice. I was just, agog! It was so beautiful and geologically interesting and if you keep your eyes open you will see an unbelievable amount of trees and bushes and I don't know what. I'm not a botanist, so I couldn't even begin to identify them. But it really was an amazing place to be.

Cynthia McAlister: The botanical gardens, technically, it's a 25-acre patch enclosed by an 8-foot fence, which is specifically to keep out large herbivores, deer and javalina. And that was installed, I think, maybe in early 2007. So it's been there for a little while now. And that has really significantly affected, for the good, the way shrubs and stuff can grow in that garden. It's 25 acres fenced and then it's about 3 acres under active cultivation, trees and shrubs mostly is what was deliberately planted there, but trees and shrubs native to the region, so some things are in that garden and of course, they wouldn't grow at that elevation or what have you normally, but they are cared for and so they can live there. So all those trees and shrubs that are native to the area... and then because it's been around for a while now, you've got a great matrix of wildflowers and forbes and such that have kind of filled in the spaces between the shrubs and the trees that they planted there.

And so you've got a 3-acre patch of flora abundance, and bees go to flowers. There are some bees that are called kleptoparasites.

C.M. Mayo: Kleptoparasites?!

Cynthia McAlister: Yeah. Well, the whole insect group is just fascinating in many macabre ways, but kleptoparasitic bees don't have to collect pollen for their babies. They lay their egg on pollen that some other bee collected, therefore, the "klepto part," they steal the resources.

But anyway, even those kinds of bees have to go to flowers for nectar that they drink for their own sustenance. So if you want to have bees, you go to flowers. And of course…Well, maybe not of course, but this is definitely something that's highly suggestive in the research and what I definitely found while I was out in the field myself is that it's not just a flower that attracts a bee. Of course, a bee may stumble across a flower, but if you get a patch of flowers or a bunch of flowers then you really start attracting the insects. And the botanical gardens does that in a lot of different ways by having a lot of different kinds of shrubs and trees and flowers and then having several specimens of a certain kind all clumped up together, where in nature they might not really grow that way.

C.M. Mayo: Well, now in nature— let's talk about how things are outside, like just when we go out into the grassland or go up onto one of the mountains— there are a lot of pollinators here. I understand this is a native bee diversity hot spot, but what really is out there, just out in the Big Bend area or out on a field outside of Fort Davis? Would we find native bees out there?

Cynthia McAlister: Yes. And actually, I was waxing on about the botanical gardens as a research potential site. That the way it's configured makes it a potential good research site. However, I think that if we did more research just out in the normal landscape, that what we would find, if we sample a big enough area, what you'll find is the same suite of of bees that we find in the botanical gardens. You see what I'm saying? It gives us a snapshot of the potential bees from the area. I found at least a hundred different kinds of bees from my small little sample from my small little bit of time that I worked.

C.M. Mayo: More than a hundred different kinds of bees?

Cynthia McAlister: More than a hundred different kinds of bees, yes. The actual specific identification of my collection is…Well, it's a point. It's a research point for me, because it's not done that way. It's very challenging to identify to the species level native bees. And what I really need to do that is coaching from a real professional, but I can look at the bees and look at their morphology and I can make up what I think, what I hope, is a reasonable guess. So that's how I count my hundred different kinds. I could be wrong, I could have many more than a hundred kinds.

C.M. Mayo: Well, let's talk to this for a second, because I'm looking at your article, "Our West Texas Native Bees" in the first quarter 2012 issue of Cenizo Journal and it has several pictures. And one of them…Well, not everybody would agree with me, but I just love bees! I know a lot of people are scared of bees and they hate bees and I don't know what, but I think they're really cute. And you have a big picture here of a male squash bee, Xenoglossa?

Cynthia McAlister: Xenoglossa, yes.

C.M. Mayo: And he has a big yellow nose! I have never seen such a thing. He has a big yellow nose. And then we were looking a little further down on the same page, there's a big picture of a bee that has bright red legs. This is really funny! We're all used to just seeing honeybees. And I know there're a lot of different varieties of honeybees, but for me they kind of… I can tell them apart from a wasp, but that's about as far as I go.

Cynthia McAlister: Yeah. Honeybees all look the same, even those different varieties. They might have a little bit different colorings, but when you just look at their morphology and their shape, the way the look, they all pretty much look the same.

C.M. Mayo: What are the most common types of bees that you might find if you just parked your car on the highway and started walking inland?

Cynthia McAlister: A little black bee or a little brown bee. Those are the most common kinds.

C.M. Mayo: A little brown bee!

Cynthia McAlister: Yeah. There are thousands kinds of bees out there, but you can identify some of them that you would see out there that are pretty common. And the one I always like to tell people about first is the bright green iridescent sweat bees of which I've seen at least three kinds out here, two maybe a little bit smaller than a honeybee and one a little bit smaller than that, but just this bright iridescent green that you cannot miss. And they belong to a group that's commonly known as sweat bees, because some kinds of sweat bees tend to fly to sweating humans and drink the sweat for something, the salt or some other chemical in the sweat. And in their exuberance sometimes they nip or even sting the person.

Now, I have not had that experience, although I have sweat plenty in the field around plenty of sweat bees, but other people have. I mean, they've told me about it. So that would be one good kind of bee we would see.

Of course, bumblebees, the big black and yellow fuzzy, black and yellow bees. And then around here, a lot of people, I'm sure, are familiar with the big shiny black carpenter bee that digs a hole out here in agave stalks and yucca stalks and dry sotol stalks and such as that, sometimes making a pest of itself if it tries to nest in buildings and structures.

C.M. Mayo: So all of these, though, are really different than honeybees, which will make a big hive and they'll start building a lot of comb and filling that up with honey.

Cynthia McAlister: Definitely.

C.M. Mayo: The native bees tend to just be by themselves and just lay their eggs, not necessarily in a big colony or a big hive, they'll just be in the ground or in a plant stalk.

Cynthia McAlister: Yes. That is exactly right. Honeybees are really unique and considered eusocial as in E-U social, truly social, living in hives of tens of thousands and it cannot live without their queen, and the queen cannot live without the hive. But most of our native bees are solitary, that is a single female is building and provisioning the nest and laying the eggs. And she lives a very short life-one season long. And she doesn't make honey. She provisions the nest with pollen.

C.M. Mayo: But they are all pollinators because they collect pollen?

Cynthia McAlister: Yeah.

C.M. Mayo: And as a result, just like…We'll talk some more about honeybees, I have a lot of questions for you about local honey bees too, but before we get to the honey bees, which are my favorite, other than that cute male squash bee with the yellow nose… Really, I wish you all listening to this could see the picture. If a bumblebee could be cute or a bee could be cute, he's cute. [LAUGHS]

Cynthia McAlister: He's definitely cute and that male nose or clypeus, as it's known in bee morphology, in most bees only the male has yellow. There are certain groups where the female might have some markings on her face as well, but mostly the male. It's just some way for him to exhibit himself as a male, or to send a message to other males or to other females.

C.M. Mayo: Like the peacock with its feathers.

Cynthia McAlister: Exactly. Usually the males are a little smaller than the female. Sometimes they are distinctly morphologically different. And this has to do with just their completely different role in life than the female. She's got to go about the nest building and the egg laying and the ovary ripening, and all he's doing is flying around looking for females and copulating, but literally he doesn't have to build a nest. Sometimes the male sleeps in flowers. They don't get to go back to the nest at night.

C.M. Mayo: They sleep in flowers! That doesn't sound bad.

Cynthia McAlister: Yeah. In fact a squash bee is notorious for sleeping in flowers and you can find them sometimes after the squash blossom closes in the heat of the day. You just kind of softly squeeze at the base of the blossom. You'll hear something buzz in there and the male will fly out.

C.M. Mayo: Well, we better be careful before we check those blossoms!

Well, all of these bees, the native bees as well as the honeybees, which we'll talk about, they all play a really important role in pollination. And I have to just say for a moment that when I first started reading about bees a couple years ago, I really didn't understand this. And I think of myself as a reasonably well-educated person. So I thought well, if I didn't understand that, I bet most people didn't— that really bees are not just this insect that might sting us or might be an interesting curiosity of some kind, but they actually play a vital role in the food supply. If you took the honeybees away, literally, our food supply would collapse.

And I'm looking at your article here. You even point out here that this is also connected with the meat supply, because cattle feed on alfalfa, which is bee pollinated. So all of these pollinators, which includes all the bees and the native bees, but also flying insects that are not necessarily bees or just pollinators in general, play a really, really important role in the world, but certainly right here in this ecoregion where we are.

Cynthia McAlister: Yeah. Pollen is the ecological tie between the bees and the whole ecosystem. Bees are considered to be keystone components of these food webs. And really, it's just kind of bizarre to me that this crucial ecosystem service that bees— and to a certain extent, other animals and insects provide, but it's largely done by bees— this crucial ecosystem service that is provided by these bees is done accidentally by them. They go to the flower to collect pollen for their progeny and in the process of that, they do this amazing work of pollination.

C.M. Mayo: It really is extraordinary and one of the things that struck me when I started reading the books on bees— some of the more popular and literary books on bees, I saw that you had quoted Sue Monk Kidd, "We must love the bees."

Cynthia McAlister: I loved her book!

C.M. Mayo: There was one by Douglas Whynott called Following the Bloom where he followed some of the beekeepers who literally have tractor trailers filled to the brim with hives, the boxes of bees. And the truck them all over the country to the almond crops in California and to the cranberry crops in Maine and oranges... It was very interesting and it's kind of a little subculture. But really struck me was how, oh, my word, these gigantic crops! You know, you have acre after acre of the same crop is relied on bees that are getting fed corn syrup and trucked around on the back of trailers. Wait a minute! I'm scratching my head, you know, wait a minute! This strikes me as kind of a fragile setup here.

Cynthia McAlister: Definitely. It's unsustainable.

C.M. Mayo: You had mentioned in your article that, "We have foods as diverse as"—I'm quoting you—"watermelons, avocados, apricots, blueberries, almonds, vanilla, tomatoes, and onions are a direct results of bee pollination." And so the average person sees the bee and they think, "ick, let's kill it! It might sting me."

Cynthia McAlister: Yeah. It's sad in a way that insects are judged so harshly considering the amazing services that they provide for us, including pollination.

There're other things I need to tell you about pollination. Particularly, that even as you're just now learning and having some awareness about the importance of pollination for food crops, I have a little bit of an issue with the whole…We're still going to eat after we kill off all our honeybees, we're still going to eat, it's just going to be very boring food. It's going to be algae and stuff like that that we don't have to have honeybees to help us with. So we really need to think about what we're doing to the honeybees.

So now, as we start to understand in the Zeitgeist the importance of pollination for food, think about that for wildlife, all of which depend upon plants. Plants are the base of the food web for everything and bees pollinate much of that. I don't know, three quarters of the plants out there are pollinated by insects— mostly bees, flowering plants— So we have to have that. It's as important for wildlife as it is for us.

C.M. Mayo: So here in this region we'd be looking at javalina, we'd be looking at deer, cattle.

Cynthia McAlister: Everything!

C.M. Mayo: Birds.

Cynthia McAlister: Deer, cattle. Whatever wildlife is out there, okay, I'm not a zoologist, but everything eats and if it doesn't eat plants to live than it eats something that eats plants to live. And a point about out here in this region is it is a harsh environment out here, the northeastern corner of the Northern Chihuahuan Desert.

And it's characterized by dryness. That's why it's called a desert. And so those are harsh conditions and soils, extremely important parts of ecosystems— maybe not technically an ecosystem, but anyway— you have to have soils. Soils are scares and thin in a lot of places out here and just due to the nature of the environment, they tend to erode away and blow away and wash away. And plants help to mitigate that by retaining soil and lessening the effects of erosion.

So that's another way to look at the importance of pollinators, both as participants in the plant resource availability to all wildlife and as holding onto the soils, [which] is especially important out here.

C.M. Mayo: So it's all interconnected.

Cynthia McAlister: And we totally need to start being more aware of that, I think. And out here in the dessert where it seems harsh and it is harsh, but it also fragile even while it's harsh. And plants... we need to take care of so that they can take care of the soils.

C.M. Mayo: Well, what happened with the rock house fire? This was in April 2011. My understanding is that there was an abandoned house outside of Marfa that caught fire, outside the normal fire season, which is from lightening in the summer. Isn't that right?

Cynthia McAlister: I'm not really technically probably qualified to talk about fire season, but to me having lived out here for ten years, fire season is created by these conditions of super freaking dryness. And we had dry winter, dry spring, and these horrible winds. And the winds are all… It's windy out here in the fall and in the spring. And this past spring, spring 2011, was especially dry and it was especially windy, and that day... who knows what would have happened on a normal day if the rock house fire had been triggered by whatever little spark it was or whatever? But on that day, the wind was howling up out of the southwest, and it took off and it blew it and it blew it all across this countryside.

And so that is extremely important. I mean, of course, it was a tragic thing for some people and it burned a lot of stuff. In the big landscape scale picture though, it's really interesting and, in a lot of ways, good for the environment.

I would love to get out there and see exactly what was going on and what is going on with the bee populations. I know that bees are probably one of the species that really did suffer, because they depend on flowers, and even if they nested in the ground, which many of them do, several, several inches into the ground, and that fire, in a lot of places, probably didn't burn hot enough to kill those bees, but when the emerged, they ain't got no resources, no flowers, and nothing's going to sprout. So it would be interesting to see what's going on with that.

C.M. Mayo: So the bees are facing a lot of issues. What else are the facing on pesticides? There's not a lot of agriculture out here, though, is there?

Cynthia McAlister: Yeah. I think out here in this area, even our honeybees are doing pretty well. We're so remote from everything. And just like you said, there's not a lot of big agriculture out here. Maybe up there in Coyanosa, in that area where they are doing agriculture. I don't know what the situation is like there. It'd be interesting to look at.

I think as far as honeybees go, you were talking about almond crops before, and almonds are really something…Once I started learning about the almond issue and honeybees, I'm on an almond…I don't do anything almond. I will not participate in the almond culture.

It's amazing to me that honeybees have to suffer for our addiction to almonds. "Oh, almonds are so healthy. They have almond flower and almond milk and almond snacks and almond everything" and we're supposed to eat 12 a day or something like that. Just like you said though, these honeybees are travelling by the thousands of hives into California every year and they have to be there in time for the almond trees to bloom and so just as you said, they have to sit there in virtual bee lots fed sugar water, high fructose corn syrup is pumped into their hives to keep them alive so they can get out and pollinate 750 thousand acres of a monoculture. Oh, just don't get me started on the almond...

C.M. Mayo: Yeah. It's pretty crazy. Most people have no idea.

Cynthia McAlister: No. No! And I should probably say honeybees are…I mean, bees are my thing, but that way we treat honeybees is unsustainable in a similar way that our big agriculture is unsustainable. You know, it's the same thing with cows in feedlots and pigs in feedlots. The way we treat our livestock is unsustainable.

C.M. Mayo: There are so many things that if you really knew what went into it, you wouldn't want to eat it.

Cynthia McAlister: I know. What little I know, I don't want to eat it. I do sometimes, but I really… I think about it every time I make a purchase. We have to start thinking about it and we have to start squeaking about it.

C.M. Mayo: Well, one of the things that struck me in this area was I've noticed there are some people who are keeping bees and selling honey.

Cynthia McAlister: Uh huh.

C.M. Mayo: And as a matter of fact, right here in Alpine, there is somebody who sells honey, which I picked up a jar of it at the Get-Go in Marfa a couple of days ago. It's really good. Big Bend Honey. Of the people you know who keep bees, where do they keep them?

Cynthia McAlister: I know there are bee hives in Terlingua and I'm sure there are in other places. And the fact of the matter is that even though I'm really also interested in honeybees, and I have talked to a few of the honeybee keepers around here, I don't really know that much about what's going on in the local area as far as the honeybees, except that people have told me they don't need to go and rescue a hive or a swarm, because if they want a beehive, they can put a scented box out and bees will come to it.

C.M. Mayo: Oh, really?

Cynthia McAlister: Yeah. So they're out here. And also, that we are definitely in the Africanized honeybee zone.

C.M. Mayo: That was the big question. So I understand that they showed up in 1991. So for people who don't know about the African bees, it's pretty scary. They escaped from an experimental place in Brazil, what in the 50s or 60s? And they slowly moved up North. And they are honeybees, but they are unlike the European honeybee, which is what's most common in producing honey in the United States and Mexico, the African bee is very aggressive and it will sting animals and people to death. So I understand that nobody's been attacked here in this area, but there was someone down in Presidio-Ojinaga...

Cynthia McAlister: I heard about somebody in Fort Davis not too long ago. Yeah. And all of this is true about the Africanized honeybees. They are honeybees that are Africanized at the genetic level, so they don't look different from other kinds of honeybees, but they definitely are very aggressive if you're around their hive, and sometimes we don't know that we're around their hive. If they're nesting in a hole in the ground or something and you're mowing, or what have you. But they are very aggressive. And so more of them will fly out of the hive and chase you farther than other European honeybees and that's what makes the dangerous. So lots of them are chasing you and lots of them sting you. And what the beekeepers around here have told me is that within about two years, if they have a hive of honeybees and they're all Italian or whatever, nonafricanized honey bees, you put your hive out, within a couple of years, because of the way bees mate, your entire hive is Africanized honeybees. So we're definitely in the zone here for the Africanized honeybees.

C.M. Mayo: Oh, that's really frightening.

Cynthia McAlister: Oh, well, if you want to look at it that way. Stay away from their hives. [LAUGHS] And that's why bees sting. Wasps, these colonial hive like paper wasps that live in a colony— most wasps, like most bees are solitary, but we're most familiar with the ones that live in a little colony in a paper nest under the front porch or something and we got stung, so we're terrified of them and we're going kill them and kill them all and kill be bees too, just in case! But those things that sting aggressively like that are stinging to protect the hive or the home, the colony. Not just the one. The single solitary bees can sting. And they can sting repeatedly. They don't die when they sting like a honeybee. But they are highly unlikely to sting. They're not aggressive. They don't fly to you if you walk around their nests. They don't try to sting you, because then they've used up their venom and…

C.M. Mayo: I recently took the Charles Mraz apitherapy course at the American Apitherapy Association. And one of the things that really amused me was that there's this whole subculture in the apitherapy world of people who use the venom from a live bee for all sorts of medicinal purposes, particularly rheumatoid arthritis and just general healing. And I was really kind of surprised. It was just something I would not volunteer for, but a lot of people at the conference were lining up to get stung.

Cynthia McAlister: Really?!

C.M. Mayo: I mean, they were excited that they were going to get stung. And one of them was a young woman that if you looked at her and you'd think there was nothing wrong with her, but she had terrible problems in her hands from rheumatoid arthritis and they were all misshapen. And she said that she had just started getting stung on purpose and she said it was really helping her. And then there was another woman who there who had an acupuncture therapy practice and she would add venom to the needles and that apparently helped people.

Cynthia McAlister: Really?!

C.M. Mayo: Yeah.

Cynthia McAlister: That's fascinating!

C.M. Mayo: Yeah. It was new to me. I actually first heard about it in California when someone my sister knows had a pile of wood in the backyard that was kind of abandoned and a couple of Mexicans showed up and said, "would you let your bees sting us?" and the guy was like, excuse me?! [LAUGHS] That was a very bizarre request. They said, "well, okay." And the Mexican had a baseball bat and he just went at that pile of wood and the bees came out and stung him. It was just the most bizarre thing. But it turns out that it was a therapy for arthritis that has been utilized by many people for generations, but it's just not generally well known. But many people swear by it. So I would skip the African bee-sting part, but maybe if I ever got rheumatoid arthritis I might let one or two sting me. But I guess if you're keeping bees or you're studying bees, you get used to getting stung once in a while and then it's just not such a big deal.

Cynthia McAlister: Maybe. I never got stung.

C.M. Mayo: Really!! You've written all this about bees and you've never been stung?

Cynthia McAlister: Yeah. Well, just to be… just to reiterate, I really haven't worked with honeybees. Of course, I did see them while I was collecting and I did collect them, but honeybees sting to protect the hive and I was not anywhere near their hive. I was at flowers, so I didn't get stung. I probably shouldn't feel any kind of gloating about that, because it just means I need to be doing more bee work.

C.M. Mayo: One of the things that really struck me about bees in Mexico— because I live in Mexico City— most of the bees, and certainly all of the honeybees, are from Europe, but there is a native bee, the melipona, which doesn't have a stinger. And I was really surprised to find that there's actually a very developed and longstanding culture in the Yucatan around the melipona. So I wonder is there anything like a melipona in this region?

Cynthia McAlister: No, there's not, Catherine. That little bee is the one that I usually don't talk about unless somebody brings it up, just because I usually have so much stuff to already talk about. But it is very interesting that even while we're saying oh, the honeybee, Apis mellifera, the honey bee is not native to North America, blah, blah, blah, and that's true. But there are honeybees that are native to the North American continent and that's these little melipones that are from the tropics, these stingless honeybees. And they're from the tropics around the world. It's not just the Central American type tropics. So I find that very interesting. But no, there aren't [melipona] honeybees up here.

C.M. Mayo: So all of the honeybees were imported from Europe?

Cynthia McAlister: Yes. Honeybees came to the North American continent with the Europeans, just like other livestock.

C.M. Mayo: And they are a kind of livestock.

Cynthia McAlister: Yes, they are. And they were so back in that time. I mean, just think about… I read a little bit about the value of beeswax for candles, for one thing, particularly for the church. And then if you think about the kinds of fat or wax that a regular person might have available to make a candle out of and what it would be like to try to function in any capacity by a pig lard candle or something like that...

C.M. Mayo: Yeah. Tallow.

Cynthia McAlister: Yes. And how nice beeswax would be as compared to that.

C.M. Mayo: Well, even today compared to paraffin.

Cynthia McAlister: Well, yes.

C.M. Mayo: The regular candles that you buy in the store, compared to beeswax, oh, my God, when I realized the difference! I got rid of all my old candles.

Cynthia McAlister: [LAUGHS] That's great.

C.M. Mayo: There's no comparison. Beeswax burns much longer, much cleaner. If you put a beeswax candle in a bathroom and shut the door and let it burn, you can come in and the air would still be clean and it would smell sweet, but if you did that with a paraffin candle, you'd get such a headache and God knows what carcinogens you'd be inhaling.

Cynthia McAlister: Lead, I think. There is like lead in some of the wicks. Maybe not now, but recently.

So yeah, and then of course, we could wax on a little bit about honeybees and the products of honeybees and the value of beeswax both for candles and just for other kinds of things, lubricant types of things, cosmetics of different kinds, and then honey and wax. And just think about honey before high fructose corn syrup or the ready availability of sugar, a native person's diet and what a boon honey would be to that.
C.M. Mayo: Incredibly nutritious.

Cynthia McAlister: Or an indigenous person or a pioneering type person. Yeah. Incredibly nutritious.

C.M. Mayo: When I first started learning about it. I thought of in terms of calories. It has the same calories as sugar so it's the same, but raw honey, really good quality raw honey chemically, although its sugar, chemically, it's very different from sugar and it's just much, much more nutritious. It has all these enzymes and other nutrients in it that you can't get from corn syrup or cane sugar.

Cynthia McAlister: My friend who's an acupuncturist and a Chinese herbalist calls honey medicinal honey. So maybe not to put on toast every morning, but to put on your tea when you're feeling a little off or something.

C.M. Mayo: Better than a vitamin pill! This is a very interesting area for a beekeeper, because there's not a lot of big monoculture in the area so you don't have the same risk that you're bees are going to fly into a cloud of pesticides that you would in California or Virginia or Ohio. I would think that the honey would be pretty darn clean.

Cynthia McAlister: Yeah. Well, I think it probably is.

C.M. Mayo: The bottle I bought in Marfa I thought was really good.

Cynthia McAlister: Was it kind of a light amber or was it darker?

C.M. Mayo: Yeah, it was a lighter one.

Cynthia McAlister: I think there's a lot of…Well, honestly, I don't know what those bees are eating right now.

C.M. Mayo: That's what I was wondering. What are they eating?

Cynthia McAlister: Well, there's really probably not anything much blooming right now. Not anything for honeybees, but white brush or bee brush has a big bloom all around this area if the conditions are right and that makes wonderful honey.

C.M. Mayo: There's a limit then to how much could be produced out here, just because there's a limit to when the desert will flower.

Cynthia McAlister: Exactly. Yeah, and the bees are just like they're timed. I'm sure they have their own signals. How much rain is required for them to actually emerge from their nests, but at the same time, if they emerge before whatever it is they use blooms, then there's nothing for them.

You had mentioned about the diversity of bees in this area, and I think I probably used the term "hot spot" in something that I was writing.

C.M. Mayo: Right. You live "in a bee diversity hot spot." Yeah.

Cynthia McAlister: Well, it's amazing to me that for most kinds of organisms on the planet, they reach their peak taxonomic diversity in the tropics where you have a more or less steady warm temperature and a lot of precipitation. So this allows for diversification. However, for bees that are dependent on when plants bloom and plants that are dependent upon when precipitation falls, the way rain falls in the desert out here, kind of patchy, you know, it might rain a lot around Alpine and not so much around the Marathon area, and so things evolve differently based on precipitation and the kind of patchy nature of it, and the bees do as well. The plants evolve that way and the bees do as well.

C.M. Mayo: Is that related also to the "sky islands" where because of the mountains...

Cynthia McAlister: Yes.

C.M. Mayo: So you'll have populations at certain elevations and to get to that same elevation you're crossing a desert, so the mountains themselves become ecological islands.

Cynthia McAlister: They definitely are ecological islands and for that very reason, because they're these tiny little patches of area that are a lot cooler and a lot wetter than the surrounding area. And I think the presumption is that this land was more like that. As the glaciers were retreating, it was wetter and cooler here, more like our sky islands are now.

I don't know... I haven't collected formally— I look and collect bees from everywhere I am, but I haven't actually collected as a part of a formal research project anywhere except just in this kind of one area at the CDRI, at the botanical gardens— but I would be very interested in looking at what kinds of flora, what kinds of things are blooming in these sky islands and therefore, what kinds of bees are there pollinating them in these sky islands.

Honeybees can fly quite a ways from their hive to flowers or water if they need to. But most of our native bees don't do that. They fly in a small area.

C.M. Mayo: So then they're very vulnerable.

Cynthia McAlister: Well, yes, they are.

C.M. Mayo: Because if you have a lot of burned area, for example, and they can't fly 20 or 30 miles....

Cynthia McAlister: Yes. It would be extremely interesting to look at a cross section of a burn zone, especially a burn zone that was pretty badly burnt and then if that burn kind of peters out a little bit, if you could get some cross sections in that., that would be extremely interesting to look at as far as what's happening with the bees in those different areas.

C.M. Mayo: I'm just thinking of the sky islands, that they probably have all sorts of bees that haven't even be cataloged.

Cynthia McAlister: Yes, I'm sure that's probably true.

C.M. Mayo: I was just reading this book here, Naturalist's Big Bend by Roland Wauer and Carl and Carl Fleming and one of the things that really struck me was how this area is so new really, I mean, a lot of the most important research-research has been done for over a century, but some of the most important research didn't even get started until the 60s and 70s, and there are still huge areas... It just seems to me a botanist's dream to come do research here in the Big Bend area. Just endless opportunities.

Cynthia McAlister: And a bee person... I would love to be that bee person. There is so much area out here that just definitely needs to be netted for bees.

I have lots of big ideas for projects that I could be doing. If I could find funding... ideally what needs to be done is some kind of long term region-wide sampling of the bees because of the nature of this area and its being part of the bee hot spot in North America. There's a big bee hot spot in North America, but we are definitely in it. This area is little-studied. There's a lot of native bee work going on in the Northeast and on the East Coast kind of area, and then there's some in the Northwestern part of the country, in California. But our area here in West Texas and the Northern Chihuahuan Desert, not too much is going on as far… I mean, just a little bit, really. I'm the current one and I'm not really even actively doing anything except just talking to people and trying to raise awareness.

C.M. Mayo: But your articles, I think, has gotten a lot of visibility.

Cynthia McAlister: I really enjoy talking about it and it's really… When I first started this research project under the What's the Buzz Grant, as I had said, my goal or my charge, what I was supposed to be doing, was collecting and identifying insect pollinators in this area, in this garden. So every day I was bringing these insects back to the lab, and as I started looking at them and sorting them out, are they flies, are they wasps, are the butterflies, etcetera, always looking at things under the microscope and noticing how they are the same or how they are different, I started finding all these little creatures that had to be bees, because they weren't flies. Flies only have two wings, but bees and wasps have four wings. And these little tiny things, definitely, they don't look like honeybees, but they have four wings and they have pollen, they're carrying pollen.

So I just started looking into this. I don't know why I was so drawn to all these different kinds of bees that I was finding, but I instantly fell head over heels in love with them and really started focusing my research on the bees more than anything else. And there are a lot of other insects out there that are doing pollination, and some of them are extremely important and/or critical, so I don't want to downplay that, but really the bees… I just want to talk about the bees, because those are the most interesting and charming. You said you loved and thought they were cute, and I totally an enamored with everything about the bee.

There are so many interesting morphological features. We talked about the yellow nose of the male. But the females carry the pollen and they carry it in pollen baskets, and a lot of them have these plumose hairs on their hind legs, on the thigh of their hind leg, which is where the pollen grains are gathered. The bee puts them there. Some of them cling by static to the bee's body, but most of them that they're taking back to their nest, they put in the pollen basket.

And then a honeybee and a few other kinds of bees like a bumblebee have a little hollowed out, flattened, hollowed out place on their hind legs called a "corbicula" where they pack the pollen, and then the belly bees carry it under their abdomens in these bristly hairs.

And so I was seeing all these things under the microscope. It was just fascinating. When I start researching about the native bees, I see that there are all these different kinds and they're extremely important ecologically, and I'm totally in love with them.

C.M. Mayo: And because of their importance ecologically it really is crucial to get the word out.

Cynthia McAlister: We can get the word out, and it's actually pretty easy and pleasant for most people to create bee space. Especially for native bees, as I said, they don't need a lot of territory and so I can completely envision that public gardens and spaces could have in their bylaws the requirement to plant native vegetation and you would have instant bee habitat, especially if you could keep your gardeners from spraying poisons on it, or covering up the ground with some kind of impermeable-to-bees mulch, because most bees nest in the ground, they need to be able to dig their hole.

But any kind of public spaces could have native vegetation planted there and it would be nice if even just Texas could have their roadsides resodded with native vegetation. And when I see it when I'm driving down the road, stuff is blooming— you should stop and look, especially if it's big patches of stuff, you should stop and look, because I guarantee you there are going to be native bees on it.

When I started the project, I didn't know about native bees. I only knew about honey bees. And of course, as soon as I learned and saw under the microscope, it was this entire new world opening to me. And while I was working on this project, I was also an employee at the Nature Center, and so as part of my job I interacted with visitors and just talking to people about my project, and I never ran across another person who wasn't right where I was when I started the project. They only knew about the honeybees.

C.M. Mayo: What is your favorite bee of all the bees?

Cynthia McAlister: Gosh. I don't think I could pick one favorite. And since I've already talked about the green metallic sweat bees, another bee that I am extremely fond of is the coppery red squash bee, scientific name Xenoglossa.

And then I do have another favorite bee and that's what we call out here the cactus bee or its scientific name is Diadasia, D-I-A-D-A-S-I-A. Diadasia or the cactus bee is so called because the opuntia or the prickly pear…If you know what I mean by the prickly pear, the one with the pads...

C.M. Mayo: Right, the nopales.

Cynthia McAlister: Right, the nopales, of course. And then the cholla, which is the cylindropuntia. Those opuntias are the favorite flower for the cactus bee and so they are tied to the bloom of the cactus.

And the Diadasia, while she is a solitary bee and she does dig her tunnel into the ground and provision her own nest, this kind of bee lives in aggregations, so that we often see hundreds of nest holes in one patch of ground. Each bee goes into her own nest, but all living together. And this is thought to be related to two things. One, they tend to nest close to patches of cactus and so it wouldn't be unusual to find more than one nesting there. And then they also… It's really kind of interesting that native bees tend to have their populations limited by both the availability of floral resources and nesting resources, which is often soils.

And so Diadasia— I'm not really sure how far they dig down into the ground, I know several inches, as far as they can, and so obviously, they need a certain kind of soil as well as floral resources. So they tend to nest in aggregation and a lot of them can access the same kinds of resources at the same time. And that's one of my favorite little bees.

You know, we are talking about the bees and the bees are the ones doing the pollination. At the same time, flowering plants are really the most amazing creatures, organisms, let's say. Everything about the bloom, everything about the flower, the color, the shape, the morphology, the odor, the way the stamens with the pollen are arranged, everything about the flower is to draw in the pollinator so that the plant can benefit from the ecological significance of sexual reproduction. And flowering plants are considered to be the most successful plants on the planet at this time because they have this ability to reproduce sexually and they do that with the flower. So to me, that's just amazing that they are able to take advantage of the little flying beast.

C.M. Mayo: It also strikes me as amazing that when you drive around out here, you think oh, it's a desert, but it's actually full of flowering plants— trees, shrubs, and cacti that have their season.

Cynthia McAlister: I cannot go anywhere anymore without my eyes looking at the vegetation and specifically for what's blooming. Is there anything blooming? If there's anything blooming, is there something at it?

C.M. Mayo: Is there anything blooming right now? We're in January.

Cynthia McAlister: Definitely. It is January and I just saw, the other day, a little patch of this little tiny.. I think its common name is veronica. It's a little tiny blue flower and I am certain that if I stayed at that patch long enough, I would see a little tiny bee coming to it.

When I did my actual research…Okay. So there were two components of it. One was to go out and collect insects, which I did mostly with a net and kill jars. And then I needed another component, to which I could apply statistics for a master's degree in the Department of Biology. And I wasn't too interested in the statistic part of it, I just wanted to see what was out there. So I found this way to look at bees. And this is done by the native bee, in the native bee research world, one of the techniques for sampling is to use bee bowls. And with bee bowls…what bee bowls are, or what I use, are the little plastic, like a picnic bowl, and it's a little plastic bowl and you spray paint it with florescent yellow paint and then what I did was I had two habitats and in each habitat I had 25 bowls. I had a grid of bowls. And I would go out once every two weeks. I would put out all 25 bowls and I would fill them with water, a little bit of soap in the water, and so the yellow florescent paint glows in the UV spectrum and attracts the bee to it. They drown in the water. They can't get out of the water because the soap breaks the surface tension. That's the idea behind the sampling method. At the end of the day, you go back and you take your contents to the lab and you sort through it and you can see how many bees you got of this kind. And then you have your list of what kinds of bees you had and how many you had, and you do that over a season and then you can say something.

And what I was trying to do was look at… I used a sampling grid in the botanical gardens, at the CDRI, and then I used a same sized sampling grid out in the surrounding grassland area. And I knew that there was a much more diverse suite of bees in the gardens than I saw out in the grasslands. I knew that just from observation, but I wanted to show it and apply statistics to it.

C.M. Mayo: Quantify it.

Cynthia McAlister: Yes, I wanted to quantify it. And the funny thing is that the data that I collected from the bee bowls or their also called "pan traps," the data that I collected from the pan traps did not reflect much diversity at all. Both habitats were extremely similar. And so what I really learned from this project was, if you really want to sample the diversity of an area, you can use the bowls, that's a good technique, but it should be supplemented by net collecting- not all kinds of bees go into the bowls. There were certain kinds I never found in the bowls, but I collected them by net and observed them often. Seventy-five percent or more of the nearly 5 thousand specimens I collected in the pans was one kind of bee.

C.M. Mayo: Seventy-five percent!

Cynthia McAlister: Seventy-five percent of the 5 thousand specimens or so that I collected in the bowls was one species of bee.

C.M. Mayo: Wow. What was it?

Cynthia McAlister: It was Lasioglossum dialictus in the halictid family. That's a sweat bee family. And it's a very small, maybe about two-ish millimeters long. If you look at it in a certain light and especially under the microscope, you'll clearly see that it's a metallic olive green, kind of a dark metallic olive green. But when you're just looking casually at the plant, you probably just see a little dark ant or a little dark bee or a little dark wasp, but if you took it and put it under a microscope, you would see little yellow pollen in her pollen baskets. You would see that she has four wings. And you would see it's a bee. It's just amazing. So these little tiny bees could be an extremely important component of the whole pollinator suite, the bee pollinator suite out here.

C.M. Mayo: For the entire ecosystem here.

Cynthia McAlister: Certainly.

C.M. Mayo: Who would have thought?!

Cynthia McAlister: I don't know! Nobody, unless you looked at them. [LAUGHS]

C.M. Mayo: Of have the sense of the connection between pollinators and plant life and soil and animals and the way it's all inner connected. That's an amazing thought, this tiny little thing that most people… I know if I saw that I wouldn't think, oh, that's a bee. I would just think that's some kind of a fly or a bug.

Cynthia McAlister: I think that you could quantify a bee's effectiveness as a pollinator based on its degree of fuzziness. So some bees are very pubescent. They're very fuzzy. They have a lot of hair on them and that hair has a static charge and pollen can kind of jump off the plant onto the bee's body and then be able to be brushed on the next plant's stigma.

C.M. Mayo: So hairy is good.

Cynthia McAlister: Is it? That's a good question. But what I'm thinking is that this little tiny bee, this little Lasioglossum, this little highly abundant bee, it's a more glabrous bee, it's more bare.

One of the taxonomic differences between bees and wasps is— because wasps evolved out of the ant/bee/wasp group first and then you have bees, so bees from wasps. But every bee has to have on it somewhere, or does have on it somewhere, hairs that are barbed or in some way plumose, and wasps do not. Wasps only have simple hairs. So I think that's very interesting, because that hairiness is what attracts the pollen and makes the bee a good pollinator, but some bees are relatively unhairy and this little tiny Lasioglossum is one of those that's relatively bare.

And then there's also the flower structure itself. Because in order for a plant to be pollinated, the pollen— the appropriate viable pollen— needs to be deposited onto the stigma and then the pollen grows a pollen tube and fertilization can happen. But a little tiny bee like the Lasioglossum, while it may crawl around and pick up pollen, maybe it's not going to crawl across the stigma and then the pollen doesn't get delivered.

So while it is highly abundant, is it an important pollinator? Good question. I'm sure it's an important pollinator for something, and I think we were starting out, you were asking me what's blooming now in January and I was talking about tiny little blue veronica and I'm sure there's a Lasioglossum somewhere that's flying around pollinating that.

C.M. Mayo: How do you see your future? What is it that you're working towards?

Cynthia McAlister: Ideally, I could get funded and that funding could come through Sul Ross State University because I would like to be able to do this research for the university and to be able to deposit my collection into the university collection and thereby enhance the significance of the native bee collection from this area.

I would just like to be able to spend my days in the field collecting and I would like to target certain areas. I'm sure there are many kinds of places that I could go and collect that would be interesting. What I would like to focus on first are places that I know there are bees. And these are places that have flowers. So anywhere with water, for one thing, along washes and streams and places with perennial water.

And interestingly, I think that there is plenty of support for and evidence for surveying in the so-called urban areas. And I would start with Marathon, Alpine, Fort Davis and Marfa— just whatever gardens people would let me go into, whatever public spaces there are, because it's certain that those kinds of areas function…Well, I shouldn't say certain, but I feel that it's certain that those kind of areas function in a similar way to the CDRI's botanical garden, because there's water there and there are garden plants there, things that people are taking care of.

And I think it would also be interesting to look at what nonnative plants are planted and what, if any, native bees are on taking advantage of those nonnative plants and whether that's happening at all. There is work being done in urban areas right now, and it's fascinating what they're finding and I think that there's definitely scientific value to finding out what's going on out here in West Texas in that capacity.

C.M. Mayo: It sounds like a fascinating project. I wish you a lot of luck with that.

Cynthia McAlister: Thank you.

C.M. Mayo: It's difficult to overstate the importance of bees.

Cynthia McAlister: I agree. I agree. And I do feel like there's kind of a move back to an understanding of the importance of bees, honeybees and then maybe a little bit of enlightenment about native bees, because along with talking about colony collapse disorder, whatever, then we talk about pollinators and pollination and then we kind of open the conversation wider than [to] just honeybees or even bees, and that's a good thing, so people are becoming more aware.

C.M. Mayo: I hope so.


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