New York City's newly discovered bee and what it taught me about nature in the most urban of places

A few years ago, I started thinking about bees. It started with honeybees. I had heard about a rooftop beekeeper just a few blocks from my house and started buying his honey at a local store because I thought it might help with my kid's pollen allergies. This was back before beekeeping was legalized in New York. I liked the slightly illicit flavor that came along with that (delicious) honey.

Beekeeping became legit a couple of years ago, and these days there’s nothing unusual about urban beekeepers in the backyards and community gardens of Brooklyn. Still, the discovery of a new species of bee in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, with the fabulous name of Lasioglossum gotham, rated some headlines. It is a reminder of the mysteries that are all around us in the city, just waiting for our eyes to get sharp enough to see them.

L. gotham is a type of "sweat bee," a different creature from the imported Italian honeybees (Apis mellifera ligustica) that populate most hives in the United States. Like many of the bees that surround us in our daily lives, L. gotham is so small as to be essentially invisible. Which is kind of nice, since, true to its name, it supplements its pollen intake by licking the sweat of humans and other animals.

I first learned about the prevalence of sweat bees and the like as a volunteer bee watcher for the Great Pollinator Project -- a collaboration between the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History and the Greenbelt Native Plant Center.

To participate, I attended an information session where I learned that there are 225 different kinds of bees in New York, many of which I would never have recognized as bees. (Did you know there are lots of little metallic green bees? There are.) I learned how to tell a bumblebee from a honey bee from a carpenter bee. And I received several native seedlings to plant in my garden, which in my case is a random collection of pots next to my front stoop.

I committed to watching these plants—including milkweed, bee balm, and goldenrod—as they bloomed, once a week collecting data on how many bees visited a given blossom in the course of a sunny half hour. It was a bit of a thrill knowing that my numbers were going to be crunched by real live scientists for a real life science project, part of an effort to improve urban bee habitats - which include patches of green like my raggedy assortment of potted plants.

But I got a lot more from it than that. This simple practice of observation transformed the way I saw the natural world that was hidden in plain sight. Once I started looking, bees were everywhere, making their way along rivers of concrete with steady purpose. I saw for the first time the way they carry pollen on their hind legs from flower to flower, sometimes loaded so heavily that they bumbled around like travelers with over-sized suitcases.

It’s not just the bees who like my ramshackle garden. Caterpillars and butterflies have found it. A praying mantis has been at home there. And every morning when I walk out the door, a host of sparrows flutters out with what I imagine is a slightly disgruntled air.

At this time of year, the only flowers left blooming among my native plants are purple asters. Even this late, a bee occasionally shows up to cruise their starry blooms. Have I ever been visited by an L. gotham? I’d like to think so. Because really, when it comes to nature in the city, you never know.

Photo credit: Srdjan Zivulovic/Reuters

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