Saturday, September 1, 2012

I just want to bee ... Up close and personal

Toe-licking Anthophora terminalis - a sweat bee in the loose sense
I like bees. I mean what's not to like - they tend to be cute and furry and buzzy and like flowers and pollinate most of our vegetable and fruit crops. In popular culture bees are almost universally presented as good (unless they are killer bees) and 'bad bees' usually turn out to be wasps. I'll even let bees lick my toes as in the honeybee-sized solitary relative of the honey bee above and below.
Anthophora (Clisodon) terminalis Cresson, 1869 aka the Tickler
I don't advise that anyone else do this. For one thing, it tickles. For another most bees have stings and can and will use them when provoked - and the bee decides when it is provoked, not you. For example, last weekend I found some poor bumble bees drowning in a bucket of water. The first two I 'saved' were dead, the third wasn't and she proceeded to sting me right  in the thumb. Hurt like hell for 10 minutes and I can still see the ~ 1mm diameter wound. Most bee stings are similar - strong but fleeting reminders to leave bees alone - but if I were allergic to the proteins in the venom and went into shock, I would likely now be dead. Anaphylactic shock can kill quickly (within 30 minutes) and that is a very good reason to admire bees and wasps from a distance.
A Northern Hemisphere Sweat Bee - Halictus confusus Smith, 1853
Some bees, though, like to get up close and personal. I've read that honey bees are sometimes attracted to brightly coloured clothing or floral perfumes. I have no first-hand experience in these areas, but I have been known to sweat. In the Northern Hemisphere, 'sweat bee' usually refers to rather small solitary bees in the family Halictidae that land on sweaty skin and slurp away. Usually they are only of minor annoyance and the occasional very mild sting. In the Southern Hemisphere 'sweat bee' usually refers to the small, stingless (they can bite) social bees in the genus Trigona. I kept hives of stingless bees in Australia, and never found them annoying, but the South American species have a worse reputation, especially for swarming around the head.
Solitary caterpiilar-hunting wasp sharing an ankle with the Home Bug Gardener
The urge to lick skin is usually attributed to an addiction to salt (sodium chloridae). In general, plant tissues contain less sodium than animal tissues, so herbivores - bees or puddling butterflies or moose at a salt lick (or people eating their veggies) - appreciate salt.  But perspiration has many minerals and nutrients that may be useful to an insect raised on pollen and nectar, so we should keep an open mind on exactly what these bees are after. They seem too persistent to be just after salt, but it could be the 'can't eat just one' phenomenon, as with potato chips.
Euodynerus leucomelas (de Saussure, 1855) - a sweat wasp?

Some days I think I may be the potato chip of the insect world as a surprising diversity of bees, wasps, and bugs have landed on me with salt-lust rather than bloodlust in mind. One at a time, I find them interesting, but in numbers these insects can be annoying, especially if you can run, but not hide. For example, this description of a trip down a river in the Amazon: "As they moved through the silent forests, the men's only constant companions were the insects that thickened the air around them. Sweat bees tickled their mouths and eyes, piums [no-see-ums] hovered over them in thick clouds, and ants and termites regularly raided their camp and devoured their few belongings." (Millard, C. 2005. The River of Doubt, p. 248). Sounds like more than one interesting insect too many.

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