Species discovery and a “bee-fitting” honour
New bee species named after museum research associate
May 20, 2022
by Laura Sutin
Bee expert Thomas Onuferko, Ph.D.—a research associate at the Canadian Museum of Nature—is honoured to have a new species named after him, Lasioglossum onuferkoi. The tiny insect (about six millimetres long) belongs to the family Halictidae, which are commonly known as sweat bees for their attraction to human sweat.
Lasioglossum onuferkoi was among 12,000 specimens of bees and wasps that Onuferko collected in 2019 while working with the museum on a Beaty Postdoctoral Fellowship for Species Discovery. His spring and summer fieldwork took him to sand dunes from Alberta to Manitoba. These so-called prairie sand hills represent a unique ecosystem where diverse plant and animal species specialized for life on sand— called psammophiles—can survive.
In early 2022, Lasioglossum onuferkoi was described in a scientific paper by Ph.D. candidate Joel Gardner and Jason Gibbs, Ph.D., renowned bee taxonomist and Associate Professor at the University of Manitoba, both of whom are experts on the genus. The paper was published in The Canadian Entomologist (Cambridge University Press).
Sweat bees are enormously diverse and found on every continent except Antarctica. There are almost 100 species in the genus Lasioglossum in Canada alone. Lasioglossum onuferkoi has a fairly restricted range in Canada, which explains why it had been overlooked in previous taxonomic studies. It’s known only from active dune sites within a relatively small area straddling the Alberta–Saskatchewan border, the focal habitat of Onuferko’s 2019 fieldwork. Further, this habitat appears to be declining due to increased stabilization of the dunes (that is, the fixation of sand in place and subsequent conversion into grassland by encroaching invasive plants).
To the average person, sweat bees don’t really look “beelike”, says Onuferko, and because most species are quite small, their sting is usually not able to penetrate through human skin.
Onuferko has probably collected more L. onuferkoi bees than anyone else to date, so the name is indeed “bee-fitting”. During his career, he has named bee species after others, but this is the first time that one has been named after him. “It’s a great honour”, says Onuferko.
Using the sizable collection of more than 12,000 specimens (representing approximately 370 species) from the 2019 sampling, Onuferko plans to publish his findings about the impact of dune stabilization on bees and wasps across the southern Canadian prairies in the near future.
In an entirely separate project, Onuferko has been sharing his scientific expertise in a restoration initiative—led by Tundra Oil and & Gas Ltd. —to convert former oil well sites in Manitoba to pollinator-friendly grassland habitat. Onuferko is identifying the pollinator numbers and species at these sites. Read more about this initiative here.