The elusive, solitary bee hadn't been spotted since 2016.

Researchers at the Florida Museum of Natural History have rediscovered an “ultra-rare” metallic blue bee that hadn’t been seen in so long that experts weren’t sure it still existed.

First identified in 2011, the blue calamintha bee is a “highly specialized and localized bee,” which depends on the pollen of a threatened flowering plant. It had only been recorded in four locations totaling just 16 square miles of pine scrub habitat at in central Florida called Lake Wales Ridge.

Not surprisingly, the elusive, solitary bee hadn’t been spotted since 2016… until March 9, that is.

“We observed a shiny little blue bee grabbing (an Ashe’s calamint flower) and rubbing its head on the top portion of the flower two or three times,” Chase Kimmel, a postdoctoral researcher at the Florida Museum of Natural History, said in a statement.

“We were pretty shocked to see it,” Kimmel recalled. “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.”

While visiting flowers, the blue calamintha bee performs a unique and telltale behavior, bobbing its head back and forth to pick up pollen with its unusual facial hairs. Other bees collect pollen via hairy receptacles on their hind legs.

Kimmel and his adviser, Jaret Daniels, director of the museum’s McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity, are working on a two-year research project to determine the blue calamintha bee’s current population status and distribution, as well as nesting and feeding habits. The project, which is funded by a State Wildlife Grant from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, could help determine whether it qualifies for protection under the Endangered Species Act.

Unlike honeybees, the blue calamintha is a solitary bee, creating individual nests instead of hives. While researchers have yet to find one of these dwellings, they believe the blue calamintha makes use of existing ground burrows, hollow stems or holes in dead trees as nests.

To test this theory, the research team installed bee “condos,” 42 nest boxes, in locations where the bee or Ashe’s calamint have been found. Each box contains reeds and sand pine blocks with holes drilled in varying diameters and depths to shed light on the bee’s nesting preferences, according to a release. Researchers will periodically check the boxes over the next year.

Blue Calamintha Bee
Credit: Chase Kimmel

Unfortunately, COVID-19 has put a damper on Kimmel and Daniels’ important work. Initially, much of the assistance was provided by Florida Museum volunteers, but the pandemic has suspended volunteer programs. Travel prohibitions have also prevented Daniels from joining Kimmel in the field, so for now, Kimmel is working alone, waiting for the bees to make an appearance.

But they scientists remain hopeful that they will be able continue unlocking the secrets of the blue calamintha when normal fieldwork resumes.

“All of this work is a collaboration,” Daniels in a release. “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.”