Scientists have discovered that there are more bee
species than previously thought. In the first global accounting of bee
species in over a hundred years, John S. Ascher, a research scientist
in the Division of Invertebrate Zoology at the American Museum of
Natural History, compiled online species pages and distribution maps
for more than 19,200 described bee species, showcasing the diversity of
these essential pollinators. This new species inventory documents 2,000
more described, valid species than estimated by Charles Michener in the
first edition of his definitive The Bees of the World published eight
"The bee taxonomic community came together and completed the first
global checklist of bee names since 1896," says Ascher. "Most people
know of honey bees and a few bumble bees, but we have documented that
there are actually more species of bees than of birds and mammals put
The list of bee names finished by Ascher and colleagues was placed
online by John Pickering of the University of Georgia through computer
applications that linked all names to Discover Life species pages, a
searchable taxonomic classification for all bees, and global maps for
all genera and species. Ascher and colleagues recently reviewed all
valid names from his checklist and from those of experts from all over
the world for the World Bee Checklist project led by the Smithsonian
Institution’s National Museum of Natural History and available online (http://www.itis.gov).
The bee checklists were developed as a key component of the Museum’s
Bee Database Project initiated in 2006 by Ascher and Jerome G. Rozen,
Jr., Curator of bees at the Museum, and with technical support from
Curator Randall Schuh. A primary goal of this project is to document
floral and distributional records for all bees, including now obscure
species that may someday become significant new pollinators for our
crops. The vast majority of known bee species are solitary, primitively
social, or parasitic.
These bees do not make honey or live in hives but are essential
pollinators of crops and native plants. Honey is made by nearly 500
species of tropical stingless bees in addition to the well-known honey
bee Apis mellifera. Honey bees are the most economically important
pollinators and are currently in the news because of colony collapse
disorder, an unexplained phenomenon that is wiping out colonies
throughout the United States.
The crises facing traditionally managed pollinators like honey bees
highlight the need for more information about bee species and their
interactions with the plants they pollinate. The National Academy of
Sciences identified improved taxonomic data on bees as a high priority,
and the new online bee checklists, maps, and other databases have for
the first time made comprehensive data readily accessible.
The checklists compiled by Ascher and colleagues facilitate ongoing
databasing of the Museum’s worldwide collections of more than 400,000
bee specimens. Funding was provided by Robert G. Goelet, Chairman
Emeritus of the Museum’s Board of Trustees.
American Museum of Natural History. June 2008.