An extremely rare blue bee has been spotted in Central Florida, a discovery that thrilled researchers who suspected the insect might have become instinct.

Last recorded four years ago, the blue calamintha bee was seen by Florida Museum of Natural History researcher Chase Kimmel in the Lake Wales Ridge region in March. The metallic, navy blue insect had only been previously spotted in four locations in a 16-square-mile area of Lake Wales Ridge, according to a museum press release.

"I was open to the possibility that we may not find the bee at all so that first moment when we spotted it in the field was really exciting," said Kimmel, a postdoctoral researcher.

Kimmel identified the bee by its unique appearance and behaviors. The shiny blue bee visits a blooming plant called Ashe's calamint bush. It bobs and rubs its head back and forth on the flower to pick up as much pollen as it can with a collection of unusual facial hairs before darting away.

Ashe’s calamint The bee depends on a blooming plant known as Ashe’s calamint for pollination. (Photo: Chase Kimmel)

Florida's State Wildlife Action Plan lists the blue calamintha — or Osmia calaminthae — as a species of greatest conservation need, and this research could help determine whether it qualifies for protection under the Endangered Species Act.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says Lake Wales Ridge is a "vanishing ecosystem." The ridge is home to 23 of the nation’s rarest plants, four rare animal species, and four globally rare plant communities.

"It's one thing to read about habitat loss and development and another to be driving for 30-40 minutes through miles of orange groves just to get to a really small conservation site," Kimmel said. "It puts into perspective how much habitat loss affects all the animals that live in this area."

Creating nest options

bee condo Researchers placed dozens of bee condos where the bees and their favorite flowers were spotted. (Photo: Chase Kimmel)

The blue calamintha is a solitary bee, according to the museum. It creates and lives in individual nests instead of hives like honeybees do. Researchers have yet to find any blue calamintha nests. They know, however, that the species is part of the genus Osmia, which often uses existing structures — like holes in dead trees, hollow stems, or ground burrows — as nests.

To see if the blue calamintha does the same thing, researchers created and placed 42 "bee condos" in locations where the bees or Ashe's calamint has been spotted. These nest boxes have holes of various sizes and diameters and are filled with reeds. Researchers will check the condos throughout the year to see if bees have visited them.

Researcher can learn more about the bee's nesting preferences when they see which holes they choose to use.

Solitary work on a solitary bee

blue calamintha bee Until this recently discovery, researchers weren't sure the blue calamintha bee still existed. (Photo: Chase Kimmel)

Before the bee was spotted in March, it hadn't been since since 2016. Kimmel has since found it in three places where it had been seen before and in six new areas as far as 50 miles away. That's "good news for the species," the museum says. The goal for the project over the next year is to record the bee in as many locations as possible to learn its range and to gain greater understanding of the insect.

"We're trying to fill in a lot of gaps that were not previously known," Kimmel said. "It shows how little we know about the insect community and how there's a lot of neat discoveries that can still occur."

Some research has been stilted due to the pandemic. Kimmel has been allowed to continue traveling and living at the Archbold Biological Station in the area. But other researchers — including adviser Jaret Daniels, director of the museum's McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity — have been unable to join him. Volunteers would have helped with the project, mapping potential sites of Ashe's calamint, but their work has been suspended too.

"All of this work is a collaboration," Daniels said. "It takes an army to make it happen, you couldn't do it without all the broader community of assistance that makes a project work to generate good results."

Mary Jo DiLonardo covers a wide range of topics focused on nature, health, science and anything that helps make the world a better place.

Researchers thought these metallic blue bees were extinct — until they saw them in Florida
Extremely rare blue calamintha bees were spotted in Florida after a 4-year absence. Researchers thought Osmia calaminthae might be extinct.