Meet the researcher who single-handedly built Canada's largest bee collection
Laurence Packer, professor of biology in the Faculty of Science at York University, who describes himself as having “an inordinate fondness for bees,” conducts research on the world’s 20,000-plus species of bees. An expert in wild bees, he oversees one of the most diverse bee collections in the world, housing specimens from over 100 countries.
In fact, his bee reference collection, the largest in Canada, has more than 10,000 species grouped into 460 genera out of a total of around 510 genera, so that’s 90 per cent. His collection also has more than 300,000 specimens, organized by continent. (Genera is the plural form of genus. It is used in the biological classification of living organisms.)
Today, Packer is very close to documenting the world’s bee genera in his digital archive, the most complete digital archive of its kind. Packer, a Distinguished Research Professor, sits down with Brainstorm to discuss the value of this work.
Q: Why are bees important?
A: A third of our food depends upon pollinators – organisms that move pollen from one flower to another, which enables those plants to reproduce. One of my favourite factoids, from a senior administrator at Agriculture Canada, is that 15 per cent of Canadian beef and dairy is dependent on pollinators. That’s because alfalfa, which requires pollination, mostly from alfalfa leafcutter bees, is an important winter food for cattle. So even if you don’t eat your fruits and vegetables, you need pollinators.
Without pollinators, most terrestrial ecosystems would start looking very different. If food production went down to two-thirds, we’d have a pretty massive die-off of people. Whether this would be from starvation or the wars that would be caused by the food shortages is another issue.
Q: What first captured your imagination about bees?
A: When I was very young, my parents tried to make sure I wasn’t scared of insects. So I must’ve overreacted! At first, it was butterflies and moths. As an undergrad, I took entomology, the study of insects, and collected all types. Then I realized that the ones I liked the most were bees and wasps. The reason for that was purely aesthetic.
Q: You single-handedly built the largest bee collection in Canada. How did you do this?
A: When I came to York, there wasn’t a bee collection. I started off with a very small one. Now, we have 22 large cabinets and 32 small ones filled with specimens – that’s over 900 drawers and roughly 300,000 specimens from over 100 countries, as you noted.
I’ve built up this collection through collaborations with others on a global scale. I’ve got one of the best bee collections from Thailand, and a great collection from Colombia and Malawi, for example, without having visited those countries.
Q: You are one of the world’s experts.
A: I’m the world expert on some groups of bees, because I have almost all of the specimens in that group on the planet here at York for me to study.
Q: You have species that are undescribed and described. Please explain this, and what it’s like to find something entirely new.
A: "Undescribed" means that nobody has published a name for it, along with its description, so we don’t have a name for it. For a species name to mean anything, someone had to have described and named it.
There are over 20,300 described bee species that we know about. My lab has described over 180 species. There are at least 400 species that are undescribed in the collection at York. There are 20,355 described species on the online Discover Life database, and we’ve got at least 9,000 of those. If you add the number of undescribed species that I predict there are to the number of described species, there’s likely 25,000 species in total … and we might have half of those here at York.
I’ve collected specimens that I immediately recognized nobody had ever seen before. These are some of the most exciting moments in a taxonomist’s life – when you find something, and you realize that nobody has ever seen this before. (A taxonomist is a biologist that groups organisms into categories.)
“These are some of the most exciting moments in a taxonomist’s life – when you find something, and you realize that nobody has ever seen this before.” – Laurence Packer
Q: What’s the value of this kind of collection?
A: Collections house the raw material through which organisms can be identified. Without extensive collections, we can’t produce identification guides to allow people to identify organisms.
The collection is also important because it includes online images that can be used to educate researchers, farmers and citizens worldwide about the diversity of bees in their own regions. I’m frequently asked to identify a specimen in another researcher’s collection or from a photograph taken in the field. In many cases, it’s against a country’s regulations for that person to send me the specimen – this is the case in India and Brazil, for example – and it is usually not possible to confirm a species-level identification, but possible to identify a bee to genus from a good photograph.
Additionally, if a country’s laws permit it, we can perform DNA barcoding to help identify the specimen. This is a method whereby, from a tiny fragment of an insect, you can use genetic methods to find out what it is based on an online sequence database maintained by the University of Guelph.
In fact, because it’s comparatively young, this collection at York is probably the best in the world from which to collect DNA samples for identification purposes.
We’ve obtained DNA barcodes for about a third of the world’s bee species. What this means is that you can take off an antenna from a bee, in the wild, release it and be able to tell what the bee is from its DNA. This non-destructive sampling is important for rare species or endangered habitats. If we have the DNA sequencing in the database, then we can usually identify the bee from just the DNA in its antenna.
“Without the collegiality and flexibility of the Biology Department at York University, the collection would be only half as good as it is.” – Laurence Packer
Collections are also extremely useful in terms of plotting distribution changes that occur as a result of climate change. When we compare recent collections, such as the one at York, to older ones, we can see that bee distributions have changed substantially.
Q: What’s the greatest challenge to collecting?
A: The regulations in the countries that have the most biodiversity. It’s impossible for me to go to Brazil, India or Indonesia and collect specimens and bring them out. And it’s illegal for anyone in these countries to send me anything. Everyone loses as a result of these regulations.
Q: How has the University supported your work?
A: Some deans have been very supportive. The faculty association has enabled me to do a lot of collecting on two sabbaticals through awarding me funds. This has substantially facilitated the growth of the collection, including rare specimens from South Africa, Chile and Peru.
In the Biology Department, the main benefit has been collegiality, which has led to my being able to decide which terms I teach. This flexibility has enabled me to go to many parts of the world where I need to collect. Without this flexibility, the collection would be only half as good as it is.
To learn more about Packer’s work, visit his lab’s website. To see the archive, visit the website. Packer also maintains an Instagram account, thepackerlab, which features the photos. To see the Discover Life database, visit the website. To read a related article in the Toronto Star, visit the website.
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By Megan Mueller, senior manager, research communications, Office of the Vice-President Research & Innovation, York University, firstname.lastname@example.org