Arizona Valley Home to World-Record 500 Bee Species, But Faces Issues

by Matthew Memrick

A recent study has found that an Arizona valley has 497 bee species, but it faces sustainability issues. 

According to National Geographic, bee researcher Bob Minckley found that in just six square miles, this U.S. border region has the highest concentration of bee species in the world.

The area, which the publication calls a Chihuahuan Desert “oasis of life” with a surplus of flowers, is ten times smaller than Washington, D.C.

Minckley and San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge manager Bill Radke published their findings in the “Journal of Hymenoptera Research.”

The Buzz On Bees

Minckley said the area has more of the particular insect than other hotspots. So much so that the SBWR bees represent 14 percent of all the nearly 4,000 bee species in the United States.

He also said it’s more than all found in New York and other states.

Sure, there are other bee refuges like Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (660 species), but that area is about 2,970 square miles. Not six.

According to U.S. Geological Survey, there are more than 20,000 bees on Earth.

Bees Basis For Life

Bees are crucial to nature and human life with their role as pollinators in ecosystems. 

Fossil water is also key to this area outside the Chiricahua Mountains. The water sustains trees and plants by ponds and creeks. Like mountain lions, bobcats, and other mammals, wildlife live in the region while birds often migrate through the area.

While the U.S. government owns the American side of the refuge, Cuenca Los Ojos, a binational conservation organization, owns much of the valley in Mexico.

The study took data from 45 sites on both sides of the border from 2001 to 2009. Researchers collected bout 80,000 specimens through various methods.

The study had neat bee facts.

First, more than 90 percent of the insects the researchers found were solitary species with no hive or nestmates. Those aboveground bees lived in the spring or fall for a few weeks. 

Many bees came in different colors and sizes. For example, the tiniest American bee, Perdita minima, is about the size of the word “trust” (from “In God, We Trust”) on a U.S. quarter. 

Many bees went after one plant, the prickly pear cacti, or a group of similar plants. Chimney bees and European honeybees took to the plant.

One rare bee, the Macrotera Parkeri, was found in the area. Mexico City and Austin, Texas are the other only known areas where the insect lives. The study pointed out that the bee may need threatened or endangered status.

Border wall Battle

In 2020, the San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge got a 30-foot high steel fence to keep non-U.S. citizens out of the country. 

When that happened, data found less animal movement. Also, the fortress wall needed lots of water for its concrete base. 

Ponds went dry and endangered fish went to artificial ponds. The small ponds had eight species of rare desert fish exclusive to this small region of the country.

When you do that, you change the ecosystem. The actual effects on insects and other wildlife won’t be known for a while. However, lower water levels could affect plants, and that will make a difference.

Wildlands Network conservation scientist Myles Traphagen said these walls could discourage low-flying insects like butterflies from traveling to the refuge.