About bees

Bee specimen preparation

Bee specimen preparation is an important step before identification can occur. Many bees have diagnostic features that can be difficult to see if the specimen is not properly prepared, and poorly washed bees can lead to difficult or impossible species determination.

Storing bees

Net collected bees often do not need to be washed before pinning and are best pinned into boxes within 24 hours of collection. After 24 hours, specimens become brittle and difficult to pin without breaking. If you are unable to process net collected bees immediately, then the next best option is to store them in 70% ethanol. Ethanol will keep bees from becoming brittle. Further, it is important that ethanol, not isopropanol, be used if the bee is being used for DNA extraction. Bees that were collected by other means (pan or malaise traps) should be washed before pinning (see below).

Washing bees

You will need the following:

  • a hair dryer,
  • a hand-held tea strainer,
  • forceps,
  • some paper towels (Low-quality paper towels are preferred, as high-quality paper towels are often fluffier than low-quality towels, and the bee’s claws tend to get stuck to them. The non-absorbent, brown paper towels often used in public restrooms work well.)
  • containers to store clean and used alcohol, and
  • a container with lid.

Procedures (all photos below taken by Chelsey Ritner):

  • Pour bees into strainer.
  • Remove any Lepidoptera (moths and butterflies) from your sample. Lepidopteran wings are coated with scales that will get loose while washing and make cleaning your bees more difficult.
  • If your bees were collected in liquids other than water (e.g. propylene glycol), or you have many hairy bees, place your bees in a container with warm water and a drop of liquid dish soap prior to using alcohol to clean them. Shake vigorously and rinse the soap off by straining them and running the strainer under warm water.
  • Put the strained bees into a container (with a lid) filled with ethanol and shake vigorously for 30 seconds. Do not worry about shaking too hard, as bees stored in alcohol are surprisingly malleable until they are fully dried.
  • Strain the bees from the alcohol. You can reuse the alcohol, but replace it once it starts to become cloudy.
  • Put the clean, strained bees onto a paper towel. Paper towels can also be reused many times.
  • Cover the bees with a tea strainer, or use a drying jar (see below), and blow with a hair dryer on high heat (if possible) until the alcohol has evaporated and the bees blow around freely without clumping together. Make sure that the tea strainer is held down securely against the paper towel or you could blow your bees away! Use forceps to press down on mesh and hold the strainer in place.
A) compile needed items
A) compile needed items,
B) pour collected bees into strainer,
B) pour collected bees into strainer,
C) place bees into a new container with ethanol,
C) place bees into a new container with ethanol,
D) place lid on container,
D) place lid on container,
E) shake container vigorously,
E) shake container vigorously,
F) strain,
F) strain,
G) place strained bees onto paper towel,
G) place strained bees onto paper towel,
H) cover bees with strainer, pressing down on strainer with forceps, and then blow bees with a hair dryer.
H) cover bees with strainer, pressing down on strainer with forceps, and then blow bees with a hair dryer.

Pinning bees

If your bee is freshly caught, or recently processed out of storage in alcohol, you should be able to pick it up and easily manipulate it with your hands without breaking it. Holding the bee between the thumb and forefinger is the easiest way to keep the bee from moving around too much while you pin it.

Which pins to use

In most cases #2 black enamel pins work well for bees. #1 pins and lower are very thin and can often bend when trying to pin through labels or even when putting the pin into pinning boxes. If a bee is small enough that you think it may require a smaller pin than a #2, it is best to glue it to the pin (see “Gluing small bees” below).

Where to pin the bee

Bees should be pinned through the top right corner of the scutum. Bees are bilaterally symmetrical. Therefore, if you make sure to keep the pin to the right side of the scutum, the important diagnostic features on the left side will be visible and unaltered. If the bee is too small to pin without crossing the midline of the scutum, it is best to glue the bee to the pin or a point (see below). It is best to pin the bee at a height that allows you to grip the pin without hitting the bee with your fingers, yet still allows space beneath the specimen to place labels with collection and identification information. Approximately ⅜” from the scutum and the top of the pin is often sufficient, but some bees have very long antenna and require a bit more space at the top of the pin to be handled safely.

Gluing small bees

Gluing bees can take time, but it becomes easier with practice. Use a thick, tacky glue (e.g., Elmer’s wood glue) to keep the bee from sliding down the pin before the glue is dry. Place a small amount of glue on the pin at the height where the bee will be mounted. Spin the pin around in the glue so that the glue goes all the way around the pin. This gives the glue a more secure hold on the pin and prevents the bee from falling off if the pin gets flicked. Glue your bee to the pin on the right side of its thorax.

Spreading features

There are many identifying features that can be be hidden when a bee is mounted. For this reason, it is helpful to spread the wings, mandibles (this is particularly true in Megachile), and legs when pinning bees. In males, genitalia and sternal structures can often be diagnostic, and it may be necessary to extend the abdomen. Using a humid chamber to relax older specimens can make it easier to move the bee without breaking it, so these features can be seen. It is, however, much easier to do this when initially pinning the specimen and it moves more freely. Mandibles can be spread by using forceps to pry them open. The wings, legs, and abdomen can be moved where desired while mounting and held in place using additional pins. Once the bee dries, often a few days after mounting, the additional pins can be removed, and the features should stay in place.

Labeling bees

The scientific value of insect specimens depends on the information collected, such as date, locality of capture, associated habitat, or plant on which the specimen was found (Triplehorn and Johnson 2005). Insect specimens should always include a label indicating, at minimum, the location and date of collection, but the collection of additional data is preferred. Ideally, the label should follow this format and order: geographical coordinates, collecting locality, date of collection, name of collector, collecting method, and habitat or behavioral notes. Location labels are typically placed below the specimen on the pin, and the identification label is put below the locality label.

Example of label showing collection location, date, collector, and collecting method.
Example of label showing collection location, geographical coordinates, date, collector, and collecting method.

Note that many of the methods described above are outlined or explained in greater detail in Droege 2015 and Wilson and Carril 2016 (under How to Study Bees).