Walking across the remnants of an ancient sand dune in Central Florida, Chase Kimmel keeps his eyes open first for the plant.
It doesn’t rise far from the ground, but Ashe’s calamint declares itself amid the scrub with bursts of flowers, short purplish-white petals drooping toward Kimmel’s feet. If he is to find the creature he’s looking for, it will be inside these flowers, bobbing its head for a couple of seconds to rub its face against the pollen.
The blue calamintha bee is thought to exist only on the Lake Wales Ridge, a region unique in its biodiversity, lingering from when Florida was almost entirely covered by water. These tall dunes were islands, home to their own species.
Before this year, scientists had not spotted the blue calamintha since 2016. It is a relatively new discovery, so they know little about its population and tendencies.
Kimmel sweats. He carries a multi-tool to free himself from the thorns of scrub plums and prickly pear spines. His trekking pants always seem too thick (hot) or too thin (weak) for these wedges of the state’s remaining wildlands, conserved between Tampa and Miami.
Vulnerable animals like gopher tortoises and sand skinks live among the saw palmetto. Kimmel is mostly alone, plodding in boots besides flitting scrub jays. The smell of citrus blossoms occasionally drifts from nearby groves, sweet but nagging, a reminder of how development has hemmed an already narrow habitat.
Kimmel, a University of Florida postdoctoral associate and former hobbyist beekeeper, strolls where he knows Ashe’s calamint is most dense. He relies on data collected by volunteers. If he stumbles onto shade, he stops and kneels, or settles into a small chair to watch the plants.
“I’m looking for anything that’s metallic blue or from a distance if I see it grabbing a flower and moving ever so slightly,” Kimmel said. The telltale sign is the bee’s bobbing, which it does to accumulate pollen.
This work was not supposed to be solitary. Several volunteers and an adviser were to join Kimmel on the ridge for the blue calamintha’s flying season, March to May. They would divide tasks and make notes on the habitat, if they spotted the bee at all. Those plans were made before the coronavirus pandemic.
Supported largely by money from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the two-year study is slated to cost about $300,000, according to Kimmel’s adviser, Jaret Daniels, a curator and director at the Florida Museum of Natural History. The blue calamintha was petitioned for listing under the Endangered Species Act, he said, but scientists have so little data that Daniels called the species “a black box of information.”
Kimmel got an early break.
Before the coronavirus upended higher education, he worked with a volunteer to position nesting boxes in a section of scrub where Ashe’s calamint had begun to bloom. He was taking pictures of flowers on his phone March 9 when he spotted something flying toward the petals. The insect landed and bobbed its head.
“That...” Kimmel thought, “kind of looks like the bee.”
The pair hurried to a car to grab cameras and nets, about 3 feet long with an opening not much bigger than a foot. They walked up on the bee and scooped.
Up close, Kimmel could see its face was coated in pollen. He has studied so-called pollinators for years, a former math teacher turned ecologist. He says, “once you spend some time with bees and wasps, you can actually hear them.”
Confronted with the blue calamintha, though, Kimmel was unsure. “I don’t trust myself anymore on identification,” he thought. He looked closely, until he felt certain.
Ever since, his plans have been winnowed to something akin to a scavenger hunt, driving from a house at the remote Archbold Biological Station, where researchers first observed the species, to scrubland where he tries to find the bee again. He has caught the blue calamintha 17 times, he said, moving it from the net to a plastic bag. He snips a hole in the corner of the Ziploc and coaxes the bee to stick its head out so he can observe it under a hand lens. He takes pictures, then releases the bee, keeping the bag for a pollen sample.
Many times, Kimmel said, bees he thought were blue evaded his net. They have stung him a few times, but he insists they have a light touch.
It’s now the end of flying season, and mother bees will die off, leaving eggs behind. In the next phase of research, the scientists plan to study what kind of material the insects prefer for nests.
The Lake Wales Ridge is maintained through controlled burning, said Daniels, the adviser, and the goal is to help conservationists learn how to manage the land in a way that protects the habitat. Months of work may seem a lot for a single insect, which until recently had never been studied, but the researchers said every block in an ecosystem is important, especially here.
“Who’s to say this one bee is less important than another organism?” Daniels said. “It’s part of what makes Florida so unique.”