BOZEMAN — In 2009, Casey Delphia, a member of the Montana State University research community working on bee ecology and as an associate curator for the Montana Entomology Collection, went on her first-ever overseas specimen collecting trip to the Caribbean island of St. Lucia. Twelve years later, Delphia found out she actually collected a completely new species of sweat bee on that trip.

This discovery came when she received a request from ZooKeys, a peer-reviewed, open-access journal, to review a paper led by University of Manitoba bee researcher Jason Gibbs. When she saw his paper was about sweat bees from St. Lucia, she sent him the samples she collected there. A revised version of his paper added her specimens, including one named after her: Lasioglossum delphiae.

Casey Delphia, researcher and bee taxonomist at Montana State University. Photo by Justin Runyon.
Casey Delphia, researcher and bee taxonomist at Montana State University. Photo by Justin Runyon.
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“I have to say when I first saw it, I started crying,” said Delphia, who is a bee taxonomist at MSU and member of the Wild Bees of Montana Project. “I was just so excited and so honored. It feels really great to be recognized in this way by a fellow bee researcher.”

Lasioglossum delphiae is a member of the subgenus Habralictellus, which is common in the tropics. The genus, Lasioglossum, commonly called sweat bees, is named for the bees’ habit of consuming minerals from the salt in human sweat. The species name is a Latinized version of Delphia’s last name to fit with binomial nomenclature, the two-part naming system used for all species in the world.

Lasioglossum delphiae is a species of sweat bee found in St. Lucia. It was discovered and named after Casey Delphia, a researcher at Montana State University and chief taxonomist of the Wild Bees of Montana Project. Photo courtesy of ZooKeys.
Lasioglossum delphiae is a species of sweat bee found in St. Lucia. It was discovered and named after Casey Delphia, a researcher at Montana State University and chief taxonomist of the Wild Bees of Montana Project. Photo courtesy of ZooKeys.
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Under the etymology section of Gibb’s paper, "Habralictus and Lasioglossum of Saint Lucia and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Lesser Antilles (Hymenoptera, Apoidea, Halictidae),” it states the species is named after Delphia “for her kind support of [Gibbs’] studies of Caribbean bees generally and in appreciation for collecting the specimens above and bringing them to his attention.”

“I am really happy to see Dr. Delphia receive this honor. She is a really talented researcher and taxonomist, coupled with a very collaborative and pleasant person,” said Michael Ivie, an associate professor of entomology in the Department of Plant Sciences and Plant Pathology in MSU’s College of Agriculture and the MTEC’s curator. “The fact is not just that she collected these bees, but she curated them, realized what they were and sent them to the appropriate colleague. I am so glad she is part of our group and a leader in the success of the Wild Bees of Montana project.”

Delphia’s work at MSU focuses on researching the bees of Montana. Montana has no official bee species list, making it difficult for researchers and community members alike to understand what kinds of pollinators reside in the state, or if they are in danger of dying out and how people can help if they are.

Delphia is a part of a team of researchers on a 15-year project to document the hundreds — or potentially even a thousand — of species of native bees in Montana. She serves as chief taxonomist for the project. Delphia’s responsibilities include crisscrossing the state to collect as many types of wild bees as possible; combing historical literature to find publications on particular species to serve as a baseline; and processing the collected samples.

Each bee specimen is labeled, which includes the exact location and date it was found, species name and more. Those data are then uploaded into a spreadsheet that will eventually serve as a foundational resource on the wild bees of Montana.

“If you go to some of the online databases, you’ll often see, for any particular species, a range of where they occur and you’ll see no specimens located in Montana,” Delphia said. “It’ll highlight surrounding areas like North Dakota, Idaho and Canada, but we are this black hole.”

She has worked on other MTEC projects in the past, such as cataloging the bumble bees of Montana and working with one-room schoolhouses across the state to help collect wild bee specimens.

Delphia said the dearth of information on bees in Montana is due to a variety of factors, including the lack of researchers who specifically studied bees over the decades or collected bees from the state. In general, more research has been done on the East and West Coasts documenting their pollinator species. In the west there are very few keys to identify species. However, Delphia said this is an exciting time to be a bee researcher because new discoveries are possible.

“It is my dream job to get to look at bees, figure out who they are, where they are and uncover any other kind of interesting ecological facts about them,” she said.

According to Delphia, the bumble bee project found that Montana is uniquely situated so that bees from both the east and west tend to be present. Not only that but Montana gets bees from the Arctic as well.

Delphia hopes her work on the wild bees project can teach people the importance of local native bees and the role they play as pollinators of crops and wild plants.

“It’s exciting to be in a position to make new discoveries on something you’d think is already known” Delphia said. “We have an opportunity to not only describe new species in Montana but to also fill in all these gaps in the distribution of known species, which is super important to gain a better understanding of what bees we have and where they occur across North America.”

- by Meaghan MacDonald-Pool, MSU News Service -