Bees belong to the Phylum Arthropoda, the Class Hexapoda, and the order Hymenoptera, which also includes ants and wasps. They are monophyletic and form a clade called Anthophila. About 20,000 bee species have been described to science, with about 380 species in Massachusetts (Mass. Dept. of Agricultural Resources, 2016). There are seven bee families, six of which are represented on Martha’s Vineyard. The seventh, Stenotritidae, only occurs in Australia (U. of Minnesota Bee Lab, 2015).
The first bees evolved from wasps about 130 million years ago, transitioning from a predatory lifestyle to a pollen-based diet (Goulson 2014). Since then, bees have adapted to better feed on flowers in a number of ways. On the females of most species, hairs on the legs or abdomen collect pollen from flowers, and in bumblebees and honey bees bristles on the legs also form pockets, called corbiculae, specifically for pollen collection. In other species, pollen may be carried on hairs under the abdomen, as in the genus Megachile, or even internally, as in the genus Hylaeus. Some bees provision their nests with oil, rather than pollen, as in the genus Macropis. Still other bees don’t bother collecting anything at all: a significant portion of bee species are nest parasites or “cuckoo bees,” laying their eggs in the nests of other species. The parasitic genera Sphecodes (Halictiadae) and Nomada (Apidae) are both well represented on Martha’s Vineyard. In addition to pollen, nectar from flowers is an important resource for bees, offering an easy source of flight-sustaining sugar.
About 80 million years ago, some bees evolved a social lifestyle (Goulson 2014), evolving into the most commonly known cases of eusociality, colonial existence involving cooperative care of juveniles and a division in reproductive responsibility (Wilson & Hölldobler 2005). Many of the most widely known bees, including honeybees and bumblebees, exhibit eusociality.
In addition to the well-known honey bee, Apis mellifera, we know of a few other exotic bees on the island. One of these is the Giant Resin Bee (Megachile sculpteralis), which was first documented in Chilmark in September 2003 (Keith, 2003). It is a species originally native to eastern Asia that was first found in the United States in 1994 and in Massachusetts in 2002. Apparently the result of accidental introduction, Osmia taurus and Osmia cornifrons are now quite widely distributed across the eastern United States. Since we do not yet have a wasp section, it is worth mentioning here that at least two potentially invasive vespid wasps, Polistes dominula and Vespula germanica, have also colonized Martha’s Vineyard.
The data for this section derives mostly from a magisterial 2010-2011 study of Martha’s Vineyard bees coordinated by Paul Goldstein and John Ascher, with results published in 2016 (Goldstein and Ascher 2016). The authors and their many volunteer collaborators surveyed more than 60 sites on the island and collected more than 14,500 specimens, documenting 182 species for the island. Seven species, Andrena kalmiae, A. alleghaniensis, A. cornelli, Coelioxys modesta, C. octodentatus, Osmia taurus, and O. cornifrons, have been added subsequent to the publication of that paper on the basis of “research grade” records in iNaturalist (some of these added species are also substantiated by specimens in the BiodiversityWorks collection). The Halictid bee Augochloropsis metallica has been re-named A. viridula here, following a 2022 taxonomic change. Goldstein and Ascher also documented four Vineyard species identified from museum collections, included in our checklist, bringing the number of documented VIneyard species to 193. Goldstein and Ascher (2016) estimate that the true number of species on the island likely exceeds 200, so substantial work remains to be done in exploring the Vineyard’s bee fauna.
Goldstein and Ascher (2016) found that 74% of the island’s bees are soil-nesters, and half are solitary, both comparable with Massachusetts-wide numbers. The nine most abundant species found in the survey were eusocial halictine sweat bees. They also found species with no or few recent records elsewhere in the Northeast, such as Anthophora walshii, whose presence on Martha’s Vineyard may represent remnant populations sheltered on the island from mainland threats.
Andrea Brown; edited by Matt Pelikan, May 16, 2023
Goldstein, P. and J. Ascher (2016). Taxonomic and Behavioral Composition of an Island Fauna: A Survey of Bees (Hymenoptera: Apoidea: Anthophila) on Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. Proceedings of the Entomological Society of Washington, 118(1), 37-92.
Goulson, D. (2014, April 25). The Beguiling History of Bees [Excerpt]. Scientific American. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-beguiling-history-of-bees-excerpt/Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources (2016). Massachusetts Pollinator Protection Plan.
University Of Minnesota Bee Lab. (2015, January 27). Bee Diversity. Retrieved from www.beelab.umn.edu/bees/bee-diversity
Wilson, E. O. and B. Hölldobler (2005). Eusociality: Origin and consequences. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 102(38), 13367-13371.
https://www.discoverlife.org/mp/20q The Discover Life bee guide section features extensive identification keys and species accounts for bees and apoid wasps. Much of the wasp material here is incomplete or experimental, but the Discover Life bee ID keys are effective and often more user-friendly than traditional dichotomous keys.