If you’re looking for bees, head to the desert. There, you’ll find blue bees, tiny bees no larger than 2 millimeters, and bees clever enough to lay food-stealing killer larvae in other bee nests.
Southern Utah, in particular, is a bee hotspot: A whopping 660 species sit within the state’s Grand Staircase-Escalante, a national monument President Donald Trump shrunk last year, according to a new study out Wednesday. That’s nearly as many species as are found east of the Mississippi River, a region over 300 times the size.
Until recently, the monument, designated in 1996, spread across nearly 1.9 million acres. Last December, Trump removed some 900,000 acres of land, along with about 80 percent of the Bears Ears National Monument, also in Utah. Many environmentalists, paleontologists, and tribal members criticized these moves out of concern for how the loss of protection could affect dinosaur fossils, cultural artifacts, and more.
Now, add one of the most diverse bee populations currently known to the list.
The new study, published in PeerJ, includes the examination of more than 80,000 bee specimens collected between 2000 and 2003. Not only did it set a solid baseline for the Grand Staircase-Escalante (which is helpful for bee researchers if decide they want to study any changes to bee populations post-Trump), but it also led to the discovery of 49 new bee species.
While the word “bee” may conjure an image of a black-and-yellow bumblebee for most of us, there are so many more than that. There are red-and-black wasp-like bees, blue orchard bees, and metallic green sweat bees, to name just a few. In addition to the nearly 50 new bee species living within the monument’s boundaries, the researchers found 13 species that hadn’t been previously recorded in Utah.
The study involved monitoring 66 carefully-chosen plots in different habitats throughout the monument twice a month. In each plot, the team would gather some bees, placing them in vials with cyanide crystals that lead study author and bee biologist Olivia Carril compared to a “gas chamber.” The bees had to be dead to properly inspect them under a microscope, she explained. Science is hardcore, man.
Anyway, the bee species varied depending on where the team of researchers from Utah State University looked, with much of the diversity localized. Higher altitudes included bee species the team couldn’t find anywhere else in the monument, while some bees could be found only at lower altitudes. This variation all comes back to the bees’ food sources—nectar from the flowers of ponderosa pine, juniper, pinyon, and aspen to name a few.
“We often think of deserts, as we call them, wastelands,” Carril told Earther. “They’re the area that doesn’t seem to have much, but there’s a lot of hidden gems in there. There’s a lot of really interesting things to discover if you take the time to look.”
Luckily for the bees, about 87 percent live in the portion of the monument that remains protected, Carril told Earther. The real question now is if the reduction of the Grand Staircase-Escalante’s size will impact the bees at all.
“It depends a lot on what they do with the lands that are no longer protected,” Carril said.
Nearly 700,000 acres could soon be open to oil and gas leasing, per the Salt Lake Tribune. The impact of that extractive industry on the bees is unknown, but if it involves removing flora that the bees rely on for food, it may be pretty severe.
Whatever happens in this corner of Utah is unlikely to impact the rest of us, but bee populations around the world are declining, and it’s our fault. Hopefully, the wide array of buzzers in this desert can at least get off easy.