Black flies. Bees. Dragonflies. If you’ve ever shooed them away from your picnic, chances are entomologist Michael Veit has spent time studying them.
Veit, who lives in Pepperell, is a leading researcher in the field of native New England bees. He is anxious for the public to learn more about the little buzzing orbs that generate so many misconceptions.
First and foremost, don’t tell Veit about the time you were stung by a bee. Among the myths Veit hopes to debunk is that “people think that when they get stung, it was by a bee, but much more often it’s a wasp or a yellow jacket,” he said. “Although they can sting, the vast majority of bees won’t, and if they do, it really isn’t very painful.”
Other common myths about bees? That they are all social and live in hives, Veit said. “The majority of bee species we have in New England are solitary nesters. Meaning they build their own nests and care only for their own offspring. You’ll find nesting bees in the ground, in hollow stems, or in dead wood.”
And also, don’t expect an impassioned discussion on the growing problem of colony collapse syndrome. That’s a problem specific to honeybees, and honeybees, as Veit points out, are not native to New England. Of the 370 species of bees recorded here, 350 of them are native, and those are the ones that interest — indeed, sometimes even delight — Veit.
“In Massachusetts, we have far more kinds of bees than people realize, and they’re really cool,” Veit said, his excitement for his chosen field superseding scientific objectivity. “Their biology is fascinating; their habits are fascinating; they’re beautiful; and not least, they perform the very important function of pollination.”
Veit, whose interest in bees stemmed from graduate work he did at the University of New Hampshire on black flies, said he makes interesting discoveries every time he wanders through the fields near his Pepperell home.
“Recently I was in a field where several native species of holly are flowering, and I was collecting some holly specialists,” bees specifically attracted to the plant. “I collected one never before found in Massachusetts. Another time recently I was out hiking with a group on some conservation land nearby and I discovered some nesting bees that I was able to photograph in their habitat. Normally nesting bees are very secretive, so it was unusual to get these photos.”
When not engaged in field work, Veit works as a science teacher at Lawrence Academy, a private school in Groton, where he takes his students out into the field to learn their subject. Veit considers himself fortunate to be at a school that “encourages teachers to teach their passions.”
As Veit points out, entomology is a valuable area of study not only for the information it yields but for the exposure to the natural world it promotes.
“There’s a focus these days on biotech, molecular biology, genetic engineering, that sort of thing,” he observed. “As a result, fewer high school and college students are developing an interest in natural sciences.” This means more learning happens in the classroom or the lab rather than outdoors, he said. “It makes them a little bit less aware of what’s actually out there.”
At least one student has found Veit’s entomology class so stimulating that he is pursuing it as a profession. Corey Smith, a Groton native who graduated from Lawrence Academy in 2005, has a summer position volunteering with a bee database project at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City while he takes prerequisite classes to begin a master’s program in entomology.
Smith traces his interest in insects, and especially bees, to Veit’s class.
“I had always been vaguely interested in insects, but his class was really great. At least once a week we would go out into the field. We’d get to places in the woods near our school and he’d say, ‘You have an hour and a half to find as many specimens as you can.’ Collecting bugs felt like a throwback to my childhood. I learned so much about the ecology of the area and how to identify insects.
“It influenced me enough that now I’m hoping to continue on in the field. It’s rare when I can point to one thing, a class or someone I’ve met, who has changed my life, but this teacher and this class did.”