I recently visited the Native Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab, not far from me in the Patuxent Wildlife Research Refuge.  What looks like a military bunker houses a project of great interest to entomologists, ecologists and nature-loving professionals and amateurs. It’s led by Sam Droege (rhymes with “hoagie”), a wildlife biologist with the Eastern Ecological Science Center, which works with other agencies and many partners on this important project.

The primary work of the Bee Lab is to survey native bees, using bee ID tools that it invents, building a collection of “accurate and detailed pictures of native bees and the plants and insects they interact with.”  So far, it’s gathered over 5,200 ultra hi-res, public domain on its Flickr site. which offers free, easy access to amazing photographs of native bees. There is no need to ask for permission for any use of these photographs.

Examples of the ultra-high res bee photos produced by the Lab. There are still more on the Lab’s Instagram account, with over 26,000 followers. (That account also includes plant photos.) These images have been used for a untold purposes, but some noticed by the Lab are on yoga pants, cell phone cover, and assorted products at Walmart.


The Lab’s microscopic photography produces accurate bee identification that “allows for better monitoring of bee species and examination of environmental factors that may influence their populations,” according to the lab’s website. Basic research like this supports native bee conservation by providing critical data and tools for the US and other countries.

Identifying the Bees

Most native bees are too small to be accurately identified as they’re supping on their favorite plants; they need to be captured, washed, and prepared to be examined and photographed under a microscope – like the one you see being used in the next photo.

Sam explained to me that the identification of bees is a “bottleneck in science.”  The Bee Lab database now holds more than 700,000 specimens, about four times the number identified by iNaturalist, but it still has a long way to go. Sam is also working on a special “Bees of Maryland” collection. (I learned that Maryland is home to about 400 species of native bees, including 14 species of bumblebees. ) And he’s created dozens of videos that teach bee identification using a microscope.

While wasps and flies are also good pollinators, the Lab’s focus is on native bees only, and which native plants support them. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has a lab studying European honey bees.

Documenting Bee-Plant Interactions

But the Lab’s work now goes far beyond bee identification to the study of which plants are visited by which native bees, and how often – which is not such easy info to acquire. (By comparison, documenting which plants butterflies alight on is pretty easy.) Sam tells me that “Netting bees is a highly tuned skill.”

One method used here is to set up cameras near plants growing around the Lab, with photos taken by a timer at 30-second intervals. The plants being studied are perennials, which are mostly grown from seed, allowing for the great genetic diversity, and some shrubs that so far are reproduced via cloning, yielding somewhat less diversity.

Some of the interactions or lack thereof are a surprise. For example, milkweed is not very useful for bees because bees need pollen to raise their young and milkweed’s pollen is not accessible to them. Two common plants that are very good for bumblebees are black-eyed Susans and Monarda, while dandelions are not.

Sam recommends we check out “Ask a Bumblebee.”

Volunteers as Citizen Scientists

I was invited to the Lab by a friend and neighbor who’s volunteering there, the details of which I posted on my local blog. But people who don’t live nearby can still help – by surveying bee-plant connections in their own gardens and contributing the information to the Lab’s database. Volunteers use a new protocol for gardens at the Lab or anywhere –  “How to Catch and Identify Bees and Manage a Collection – A Collective and Ongoing Effort by Those Who Love to Study Bees in North America.”

Sam explains that home gardens are good sites for doing research because they have lots of flowers. Volunteers set up their cameras (even iPhones) near some native plants in bloom, set the timer to take a shot every 30 seconds, and simply count the bees landing on the flowers. Last year 1,000 surveys were submitted by citizens, mostly in the Northeast of the U.S., though the Lab wants data from everywhere.

And Sam urges gardeners everywhere to just plant more flowers to help pollinators. He suggests they check this list of flowers and shrubs that are “suitable for pollinators in your area.”

Hear Sam on the DC Gardens Podcast

Here’s Sam telling me about the ground cherry he’d just planted in a pot.  Ground cherry is host to three very specialized bees, so without that plant, they’re gone.

Coincidentally, the same week I met with Sam I got to hear him talking with Kathy Jentz on her Garden DC podcast – here or wherever you listen.   It’s filled with interesting scientific details but here are some big-picture thoughts for us regular people.

You can heal yourself in the largest way and support yourself, support your neighbors, support your health, by moving your yard into a landscape that not only supports bees and all these other animals but is really going to support you…I look out my window and I see green and gardens and flowers and that feeds me…

So I just feel like we have as society bought into some sort of – gosh it really feels toxic now that I say this – that our spaces are required to be so sterile and so nonconnected to nature.  Lawns are never created by nature, and so forth. I soapbox on that all the time now…

I feel good and I’m a better person because I don’t have to go forest-bathing, although I do like going out in the field, but I can be at home and I am supported just as much.  Why don’t we push that angle a lot more?  So you’re doing it for bees but you’re doing it for yourself and your kids and your family and your neighborhood.

Around the Bee Lab

The new crevice garden.

The bog garden.

Rudbeckia of some kind.

My plant ID app tells me this is Yellow Loosestrife.

In this shot I can identify some Joe Pye Weed and Monarda.

My app isn’t sure whether this is a prairie coneflower (Ratibida pinnata) or a type of rudbeckia.