World experts meet at York to devise a bee identification project

International bee experts are meeting at York University this week to devise a global campaign to identify all of the world’s bees.

Bees are the most important pollinators on the planet and are responsible for about one-third of the food we eat. However, bee populations are in decline, and the 20,000 bee species in the world are often difficult to identify, even for experts.

A revolutionary new technique for identifying organisms involves sequencing a small piece of DNA to produce a “DNA barcode”. The current meeting at York will launch a campaign to DNA-barcode the bees of the world, so that one day, anyone with access to a bee’s DNA, anywhere on the planet, will be able to find a name for that bee. This will greatly increase the efficiency of studies in agriculture, pollination, biodiversity and the environment.

Left: Bee experts will launch a DNA barcoding campaign this week at York which will identify bees of the world

“Bees are the best organisms to study from the point of view of the state of the environment, because they are more at risk of extinction than other organisms,” says Professor Laurence Packer of York’s Department of Biology, Faculty of Science & Engineering. “It takes a lot of training and practice to tell bees apart. Experts might be able to identify 1,000 or so species in their region of expertise but by using barcoding anyone will be able to identify any of the world’s species.”

Packer, who is recognized as Canada’s leading expert on the world’s bees, invited a dozen experts from around the globe to come to York and develop a strategy to start the bee barcoding campaign. Experts from Brazil, Japan, India, the United States, Britain, Mexico and the Food & Agriculture Organization of the United Nations are onsite at York, with experts from China, Argentina and South Africa providing input by e-mail or phone. 

In advance of the meeting, the invited experts sent bee specimens from their countries’ museums and other collections for barcoding – a collaborative effort between Packer’s lab and researchers at the Biodiversity Institute of Ontario at the University of Guelph.

It is possible to get DNA from bee specimens that are up to 20 years old, Packer said, and one of the goals of the meeting is to learn what proportion of all species can be barcoded from collections that have already been made.

“It appears that about 75 per cent of the bee specimens sent by the experts can be barcoded easily. This means that we will soon be able to identify a bee species from anywhere in the world for about $3, which is a fraction of the amount it costs to train an expert to identify species. Even then, a well-qualified person can only identify a small proportion of the world’s species,” said Packer.

Some species can be told apart only by using DNA-based approaches, Packer said, and even some of the most common bees in North America are indistinguishable based solely on morphology – the examination of physical characteristics.