John Ascher in search of bees in the Chiricahua Mountains of Arizona [Credit: Chaoyan Dong].
John Ascher’s office is buried among rows of dingy white cabinets that line a long hallway on an upper floor of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. His eyes dart around the cluttered room. He reaches for an old wooden box, a window into the past, and pokes at a tiny label meticulously attached to a small brown bee “Flatbush, Brooklyn, New York, 1897.”
Ascher’s face twitches with excitement, causing his glasses to bob slightly on his nose. “What we do here is basically out of style,” he says.
He’s talking about the old-fashioned classification of plants and animals, otherwise known as natural history. In the past fifty years, this biological science has fallen from favor, preempted by the glitz and promise of studying proteins and genes with molecular technologies.
But Ascher sees promise in the contents of the old white cabinets. They are filled with dead bugs, millions of them, stacked in wooden boxes. There are over 450,000 bee specimens alone – red bees, blue bees, purple, and green bees – bees from Turkey and Thailand and Honduras, some as large as your knuckle or as small as a pinpoint. Ascher’s goal is to catalogue them all in a public database.
Old bee specimens like the one in his hand offer a snapshot into the past, a view of places like Brooklyn before pesticides or urbanization. Relics like these may prove invaluable in determining the future of pollinators.
A 30 percent decline in the number of honeybees in the past several years due to Colony Collapse Disorder has some ecologists worried about a decline in the number of pollinators. In the United States, honeybees alone provide $5 billion to $10 billion in crop pollination services annually. Globally, pollinators are essential in the production of nearly one-third of the human diet. Though many types of insects and animals such as butterflies, moths, beetles, birds, and bats can pollinate flowering plants, bees are the primary pollinators of our food crops.
Given the economic importance of bees, surprisingly little research has been done to study the effects of urbanization, climate change, and disease on the habitats and lifestyles of bees, according to Ascher.
A lack of baseline data on where certain bees used to live makes it very difficult to study how bee populations have changed over time in response to these threats, says Ascher. His aim is to create that data by looking back into the museum’s massive bee collection. One by one, starting with the oldest specimens, he is documenting all 450,000 of them on a public database. He hopes this will not only create a starting point for future bee research, but also raise interest in bees in the public and scientific communities.
“John Ascher is all about the bees. We joke sometimes that he was raised by bees,” says Kevin Matteson, an urban ecologist at Fordham University who has collaborated with Ascher on bee studies in New York City. He adds that Ascher’s passion for bees is contagious. “I tend to get pretty amped up about bees too. We feed off each other now and then,” says Matteson.
Jokes aside, Ascher’s fascination with bees has not been a lifelong pursuit, but instead started with a college internship. In 1992, Ascher participated in a program for undergraduates at the American Museum of Natural History, where he studied bee ecology.
But Ascher always had a passion for discovery. As a child growing up in California, he remembers identifying birds and reptiles in his own backyard and on cross-country trips with his family, armed with a heavy set of binoculars and his trusty Golden Field Guide. He rarely identified bees or other insects, he says, because there just wasn’t a great field guide for insects.
In the end, this lack of common knowledge is precisely what brought Ascher to bees. He realized that on any given day, he could walk out the door and make basic discoveries about bees – which ones exist, where they live, what they do. Ascher contrasts this to a common species of European bird. “Take the European robin – most of the things about the creature itself – where it lives, what it does – were documented 150 years ago.”
The prospect of discovery excited Ascher, and led to his enthusiasm for bees.
“Ascher is a phenomenal resource for us,” says Elizabeth Johnson, a biologist at the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the museum. “The kind of research he does, making the museum collection accessible, we can all benefit from that knowledge,” says Johnson.
Through Ascher’s database, which can be found online at Discover Life, he hopes to foster a grass-roots partnership between scientists, students and volunteers. Ascher believes such a coalition between experts and amateurs will enhance everyone’s understanding of biodiversity and will lead to stronger, more informed conservation initiatives, both locally and globally.
Over 20,000 known species of bees exist, more than birds and mammals combined, and most of them are poorly studied. Though the task of finding and identifying so many species may seem daunting, John Ascher sees opportunity in the unknown.
“In terms of bees,” says Ascher, eagerly leaning on the edge of his chair, “we are still in the age of discovery.”
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