Photo: The bee species Anthophora pueblo excavates its nests in hard sandstone, such as here, in Utah's San Rafael Swell. Credit: Michael Orr/Utah State University A newly discovered species of bee does things the hard way, gnawing its nests out of solid rock even when softer dirt is available.
This hard work appears to pay off, however, by providing the bees greater protection from the vagaries of life in thedesert Southwest. The species, dubbed Anthophora pueblo, has been found in Utah, in southwest Colorado and inDeath Valley in California, where it pocks vertical sandstone rock faces with tiny holes. Though the bees seem to be solitary nesters, they build these rocky alcoves next to one another, like insect apartment-dwellers.
"The bee is very unusual," study researcher Michael Orr, a doctoral student in biology at Utah State University, told Live Science. [See Images of the Sandstone Bee Nests]
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The first hint of Anthophora peublo's existence dates back to the early 1980s, when entomologist Frank Parker - an author on the current study and the former head of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Bee Lab in Utah - discovered bees nesting in holes dug into sandstone in Utah's San Rafael Desert. Parker chipped out a couple of blocks of sandstone and reared the bees until they emerged from the rock; the nests and bee specimens then sat in a museum collection, unstudied.
Flash forward to the present day, when Orr began doing fieldwork studying other members of the Anthophora genus. He'd seen bees using the sandstone nests, and when Parker told him about the original discoveries in the 1980s, he knew he had to investigate more fully.
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He did some detective work to rediscover Parker's original field sites, where the gap is still visible from the chunk of rock he chiseled out 36 years ago, Orr said. Something else remains the same, too.
"One of the greatest moments for me of this project was going back and revisiting that site from almost 40 years ago, and just walking up and the bees are still there," Orr said. "They're still using this same spot."
Orr and his colleagues discovered the sandstone-dwelling bees at seven sites total, the researchers reported on Sept. 12in the journal Current Biology. They're mostly found in natural rock formations, but some nest in ancient Pueblo dwellings made by human hands - lending them their species name.
The bees, which are covered in the familiar black-and-yellow stripes, nest in sandstone at all but two sites, Orr said, where they burrow into silt. At these silt sites, the sandstone is about 2.5 times harder than the sandstones that the bees burrow into.
"They prefer it up until it's at a certain hardness threshold and then it doesn't make sense for them anymore," he said.
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