Tracking the buzz

St. Cloud man photographs bees as part of the Minnesota Bee Atlas program


By Tim King


Don Leaon, pictured on the Wisconsin side of the Mississippi River. Behind him, across the river is South East Minnesota’s Driftless Region, which was not glaciated during the last glacial era. Contributed photo

Over the last few years Don Leaon, of St. Cloud, has explored Minnesota’s four biomes in search of wild bees to photograph on behalf of the Minnesota Bee Atlas. A biome is an ecological region, and Minnesota’s are generally defined by coniferous forest, deciduous forests, and the prairies lands that originally covered western and south central Minnesota.


As a trained volunteer Minnesota Master Naturalist Don has spent a good deal of time studying Minnesota’s biomes. In fact, a 40-hour course on one of them is required to achieve that designation.


“I’ve been a Minnesota Master Naturalist volunteer since September, 2015, when I completed the Northwoods-Great Lakes course,” Don, who spent his childhood in England and Vermont, said. “Since then I have also completed Minnesota Master Naturalist’s Big Woods-Big Rivers and Prairies and Potholes courses. I’ve had an interest in nature since childhood.”


Don, and his wife Mary, moved to St. Cloud when they retired so they could be closer to their daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren.


“Since my retirement a few years ago, my wife and I spend as much time as we can walking Minnesota’s trails, camera in hand, photographing Minnesota’s flora and fauna,” he said.


Don learned about the Minnesota Bee Atlas project while taking the Master Naturalist program’s course on Minnesota’s Big Woods-Big Rivers biome. Britt Marie Forsberg, of the University of Minnesota Extension and the Project Coordinator for the Minnesota Bee Atlas, gave a presentation as part of the forty hour course.


“She helped me understand how important bees are in promoting healthy ecosystems, how important their role in agriculture is, and about the many challenges native bees are facing today,” Don said.


The bees Forsberg was talking about weren’t the honey bees that we all are familiar with. They are facing their own problems, however. She was speaking about the nearly two dozen species of bumble bees that have been recorded in Minnesota along with Leaf Cutter Bees, Carpenter Bees, Cellophane Bees and numerous other groups of bees native to Minnesota. Over the last four years the Bee Atlas, along with roughly one-hundred and fifty volunteers, set out to systematically find out what species of bees there are in Minnesota and where they are located.


“Bumble bee and pollinator conservation is a global concern and monitoring their populations is providing important information to inform conservation efforts,” Forsberg said.


Coneflower Mining Bee, Quarry Park and Nature Preserve, August 9, 2018. Photo by Don Leaon

“Submitting photographs of bees, along with the date, time and location of the observation to the Minnesota Bee Atlas project contributes to the project’s goals,” Don said. “The time I spend photographing bees allows me to complete the minimum of forty hours of volunteer service each year to maintain my Minnesota Master Naturalist certification while doing something I very much enjoy. It’s a perfect combination for this retiree.”


Don took two seminars on Minnesota native bees, presented by the University of Minnesota Extension, as part of his education on bees. Following that he set out to document some of the species that he had been learning about. State parks were some of his favorite places to search. He visited over two dozen of them from Grand Portage, in the far northeast, to Charles A. Lindberg in Central Minnesota’s deciduous forest, to the prairies of Lac Qui Parle State Park in Southwestern Minnesota.


But he also looked closer to home. In St. Cloud’s Quarry Park and Nature Preserve he recorded and photographed a Coneflower Mining Bee and a Thistle Long Horned Bee. Just a little further from home, at Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge, he photographed a Brown-Belted Bumble Bee and a Tricolored Bumble Bee.


“Most of my bee photos were taken at distances less than six inches from the bee being photographed,” Don, who has not been stung while photographing bees, said.


Don puts his photos, along with the date, location, and species - if he knows it - on a web site called inaturalist.org. The website is a project, operated by National Geographic and others, that is a vast international catalogue of the planet’s biodiversity. The Minnesota Bee Atlas is a project housed within inaturalist.org and can be located at “inaturalist.org/projects/minnesota-bee-atlas.” Bees photographed in Minnesota and placed on inaturalist are automatically moved to the Minnesota Bee Atlas.


Photo of Thistle Long-horned Bee, taken at Quarry Park and Nature Preserve, on Aug. 9, 2018. Photo by Don Leaon

According to the website 2,268 observers made 18,693 observations of bees in Minnesota and identified 152 different bee species. The bee most observed was the Common Eastern Bumble, with a total of 2,780 observations. Don has recorded 1,608 observations. That’s more than any other volunteer.


“One of the advantages of being retired is having the time to do the things you enjoy. In my case [it’s] spending time on Minnesota’s trails photographing flora and fauna, with an emphasis on bees, has been a primary goal.”


Don’s hundreds of observations have included 14 different species of bumble bees and 58 species of other wild bees native to Minnesota.


During his time as an atlas volunteer Don has been educating himself about what he’s learned about native bees. For those who are interested in learning more about Minnesota’s bees and their natural history he recommends taking a look at the book Bees: An Identification and Native Plant Forage Guide by Heather Holm. He also suggests taking a look at the Xerces Society’s web site at xerces.org. Among other things the Xerces Society offers free webinars on subjects such as creating pollinator habitat in your town or city. Don also recommends taking a look at the University of Minnesota’s Bee Lab (www.beelab.umn.edu) and, of course, the Bee Atlas itself.


As a product of his field work, his reading and his online studies Don has prepared a presentation called Bee Basics. The presentation includes excellent material on honey bees and how they make honey. It also includes lots of information on many of the wild bees found in Minnesota along with a number of Don’s striking bee photos. Don’s well organized presentation can’t help but make even the casual observer interested.


Did you know, for instance, that there are bees in Minnesota called Nomad Bees?


“Nomad Bees (Family Apidae) are Cuckoo Bees,” Don writes. “Female Nomad Bees will lay their eggs in the nests of ground nesting bees. Once a female Nomad Bee locates a nest of a host they will lie in wait near the nest. When the host bee leaves the nest, the Nomad Bee will enter the nest and lay egg(s) in brood cell(s) provisioned by the host bee.”


Brown-belted Bumble Bee, Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge, May 31, 2018. Photo by Don Leaon

There are a number of Cuckoo Bees, or nest parasites, in the bee world, Don tells us in Bee Basics.


Don has given his presentations to various organizations, including to a class of aspiring Master Naturalists, and says that he’s looking forward to showing it to others once COVID is under control.


Although Phase I of the Bee Atlas Project ended recently, Britt Forsberg said that they are seeking funding for a Phase 2 of the project.


“When we get going we will certainly take new volunteers,” she said.


Meanwhile, Don says he’s going to keep looking for bees no matter what.


“I hope to read more about Minnesota’s native bees this winter and to continue photographing bees this spring,” he said. “I would encourage others who may have an interest in nature to consider becoming volunteers in the Minnesota Master Naturalist program and the Minnesota Bee Atlas project.”


You can learn more about the Minnesota Master Naturalist program by searching for it on the world wide web or visiting the University of Minnesota Extension website at extension.umn.edu or by calling Extension at 612-624-1222.

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