Most people avoid bees like the plague. They certainly don’t welcome them at summer gatherings.
Ismael Hinojosa-Diaz, a Kansas University entomology doctoral student, is different. While attending a barbecue at friend Charles Linkem’s house in June, he saw a bee nearly 1 inch long with a yellow thorax and black abdomen.
“I started screeching, ‘Help me! Help me!’ because I was so excited. I couldn’t believe my eyes,” he recalls.
This wasn’t your common variety bumble or carpenter bee. It was a giant resin (megachile sculpturalis), thought to have originally arrived in North America via Chinese and Japanese cargo ships.
“The first recorded collection of the bee occurred at the campus of North Carolina State University in 1994,” says Hinojosa-Diaz. “Since then, it’s appeared all over eastern North America.”
Until that summer day in Lawrence, the giant resin bee hadn’t been identified authoritatively west of the Mississippi River. Three years earlier, in 2005, Hinojosa-Diaz and four colleagues published a study predicting the bee would make its way as far as the Great Plains.
“To be the one to find the subject of our predictions and prove those predictions right was amazing,” he says.
After the bee’s capture, he lost no time in producing the first scholarly report of its recorded presence in Kansas. It was published in July.
As a boy growing up in Santa Maria Rayon, about two hours west of Mexico City, Hinojosa-Diaz had no idea he would one day end up catching bees in Kansas. His mother died when he was 7 and, because his father had abandoned the family, he and his 17-year-old sister Yolanda went to live with their aunt.
“I wanted to be a scientist, but that was much too expensive,” he says. “So when it was time for college, I decided to study biology.”
He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in biology from the National University of Mexico in 1997 and then worked in the government’s treasury department, while attending night school to complete a master’s degree in animal biology.
“As part of my studies, I did an elective course on bees and really liked it,” he says. “From then on I became really involved in studying bees. Once you get into the bee world you soon learn that there’s a person named Charles Michener who has been the source of knowledge in this field for more than 60 years.”
He pauses and laughs.
“You also learn he’s been a professor in the University of Kansas for a long time, and has helped to create the most comprehensive and best bee collection in the world. It didn’t take me long to realize that there’s no better place in the world to do studies related to bee systematics and evolution than Kansas.”
After graduating with his master’s in 2001, he got a scholarship to attend KU to study for a Ph.D. focused on bee systematics.
In spite of his coup with the giant resin bee, it’s not the subject for his doctorate. He’s focusing instead on the phylogenetic study of a genus of orchid bee. His work has already taken him to Spain, Costa Rica and Mexico.
“I’m an entomologist and systematist,” he explains. “I try to make sense of the organization of living things according to their evolutionary ties. In doing that I have to deal with many specimens and make reviews so it’s easy to find new species. I’ve described six. That’s not much.”