Sci Cab Chats with Bee Expert Bryan Danforth

Bryan Danforth - Cornell University

by Kitty Gifford

Join us on Tuesday, April 21 for a Science Cabaret on bees, with Dr. Bryan Danforth, professor in the department of entomology at Cornell University.

Bryan will be talking about what is going on with honey bees as well his lab’s work on wild bees and how important they are to apple pollination.

How did you become a scientist?

I became interested in biology as a kid mucking around in the marshes and tidal pools of Fishers Island, NY. In High School I got really hooked on birding and my biology professor, John Curry, had us counting hawks in the springtime. I majored in biology at Duke University, where Fred Nijhout, a developmental biologist, introduced me to the fascinating world of insects. As an undergrad, I assisted with field projects in the sandhills of North Carolina and the coast of Connecticut. I discovered a love for evolutionary biology and field studies.

And how has your interest in science continued (what keeps you inspired)? Who encouraged you?

I discovered bees as a graduate student at the University of Kansas in the 1980s. Charles Michener, my thesis advisor, suggested I spend a summer in the desert southwest, where the diversity of North American bees is at its highest. I spent several summers studying bee nesting and foraging behavior at the Southwestern Research Station in Portal, Arizona, a mecca for bee biologists. I had an outstanding mentor, Jerry Rozen (American Museum of Natural History), who introduced me to the fine art of studying bee nesting biology. With Dr. Michener and Rozen guiding my studies, I discovered the fascinating world of bee diversity and behavior.

What are you working on now?

My lab focuses mainly on to two topics. First, we study the diversity, phylogeny and evolution of bees on a global scale. We use genetic data (DNA sequence data) to reconstruct the evolutionary relationships of bees and we are constantly refining the bee “tree of life”. Second, we study the biodiversity of wild bees in eastern apple orchards and the role that these wild bees play in apple pollination. We have discovered over 100 species of bees visiting apple blossoms in NY. These bees are abundant in apple orchards in the early spring and they are highly effective pollinators of apples. In fact, a large percentage of the apples consumed in NY are probably pollinated by wild bees rather than domesticated honey bees. We are working closely with apple growers in NY to develop strategies for encouraging native bees in and around their orchards. 

Do you collaborate with other scientists? Across different disciplines?

Yes. I collaborate with scientists around the world on studies of bee diversity, phylogeny and evolution. I have close colleagues in Europe, Australia, Africa, South America, and across the US. Bee biologists are incredibly collaborative people, just like the bees they study.

What will you do when you finish this research/current project/current focus?

Write a book!

Describe your lab or favorite workspace indoors or out!

Arid regions of South Africa – this is where you find some of the most fascinating bees on the planet, including Fidelia, Scrapter, and Patellapis. South Africa hosts some of the most ancient lineages of bees in the world and the fauna there is strikingly different from our North American fauna.

What is one surprising thing you’d like people to know about bees?

Bees are incredibly diverse. There are over 20,000 described species, which is five times the number of mammals on earth. Only a small percentage (~6%) of bees are social, and an even smaller percentage (~2%) make honey. The majority of bees are solitary with females constructing their own burrows, provisioning their own offspring, and defending their own nest. Most bees nest in the ground, but there are also stem nesters, cavity nesters, wood nesters, resin-collectors, leaf-cutters, and masons. What distinguishes bees from closely related wasps is that bees are herbivores (consuming pollen and nectar) whereas wasps are predators (mostly consuming other insects).