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A refresher on using Discoverlife Bee Keys

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  • Sam Droege
    All: We continue to expand and update the Discover Life Bee Keys. However, we also are aware that they are often treated like the familiar dichotomous keys
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 30, 2012

      We continue to expand and update the Discover Life Bee Keys.  However, we also are aware that they are often treated like the familiar dichotomous keys rather than the powerful matrix keys that they are and thus are used inefficiently, often to the extent that people never get off the first page (and people never bother to read instructions these days) .  

      Schade! as my tiny German heritage grandmother used to say when I disappointed her.  These often represent the most up to date information on identification for many of these groups....

      So to that end I am re-posting some some of the hints on using these keys published in the Handy Bee Manual.
      So pay attention or you may receive a visit from Grossmutter Baden....


      A Guide to Identifying Bees Using the Discoverlife Bee Keys

      This section provides guidance for the use of the online Discoverlife guides or keys.  These instructions are designed for use with the guides to the genera and species of bees, however, these instructions will largely hold true for any of the non-bee guides also available at the site.   Be sure to also see the section at the end regarding the use of already identified specimens.  A set of identified specimens can be obtained at no charge from Sam Droege (sdroege@...).

      Hint:  If you are just beginning to learn how to identify bees we suggest that you look at the glossary of terms, vocabulary, identification tips, and pronunciation materials that we in this manual

      All of the Nature Guides are located at:


      However, the consolidated links to the bee guides and associated materials are at:http://www.discoverlife.org/nh/tx/Insecta/Hymenoptera/Apoidea/

      Discoverlife guides differ from traditional dichotomous keys in that characters that help differentiate species are evaluated and scored for all or almost all of the species.  Think of it as a matrix, with species as rows and character states as columns.  That matrix is employed by answering questions regarding the presence or absence of characters for a specimen.  As questions are answered the list of possible species is narrowed until, in most cases, the list resolves to a single name.

      On the bee page at Discoverlife there are a series of guides listed for Eastern North American bees (states and provinces east of the Mississippi River).  Many of these guides have been expanded to include Western species and over the coming years we will expand all guides to include the western states and provinces.  Guides are are constantly being updated with pictures, corrections, and better wording.  

      Most guides deal with a single genus of bees. If there are a large number of species present, these guides are often divided into two guides, one for each sex, as characters useful for identifying species are often gender specific.

      Hint:  If you are unfamiliar with the bee genera we suggest that you start your identification process by using the guide to bee genera to divide your collection into genera.  

      The instructions that follow apply equally to the guide to bee genera or to any of the individual bee genera guides.

      Each guide has questions on the right, a species list on the left, and navigation tools across the top.  The list of species and the list of questions interact with each other.  Answering any question (in any order) narrows the list of candidate species, when any “Search” button is clicked.  Similarly, one can flip the process, by clicking the “simplify” button, and have the computer narrow the set of questions based on the species that remain on the list.  

      Clicking on any pictures present within the guide will display an enlarged or version of the picture.  Many species names can also be clicked on to reveal species specific pictures and often have associated text material on the nature history or identification of that species.

      Hint:  Answer ANY NUMBER of questions IN ANY ORDER. You do not need to answer all questions.  Initially answer ONLY questions where you are sure about your answer.

      The initial page presents a subset of all the questions in the guide.  These questions are both easiest to understand and most likely to separate out large numbers of species.  

      There is no need to answer the questions in the order presented.  

      At least initially, you will find that there are some questions that are clearer in your mind than others.  These should be answered first.  

      Leave questions you are unsure of blank!  Don’t guess!

      We recommend that you spend more time reading and learning about the morphological characters in the questions before providing your answer, or simply skipping the question.

      Not all characters will have been scored for all species.  If both sexes are present in a guide then characters that only apply to one sex will obviously not be scored for the other sex.  Similarly, if we have been unable to obtain a specimen of a rare species, we may not be able to score some characteristics from the available literature.  The consequence of this is that any species that has not been scored for a particular question will remain on the list of possible candidate species, regardless of whether it actually has that character or not, simply because it cannot be eliminated from the list of possibilities.  

      Hint:  While using a guide, there are 2 types of species that remain on the list.  1. Those species that have the characters you have indicated.  2.  Those species that have not been scored for some or all of the characters you chose in your answer. The second type of species will stay in the list simply because we do not have enough information about its characters to eliminate it.

      Hint:  For many characters you are given three or more choices of states.  If you are not sure which of the states your specimen’s character fits into don’t hesitate to click on all possible correct combinations rather than trying to narrow it to the one that best fits.  

      At any point you can press any of the SEARCH buttons that are located throughout the page.  Doing so will update the species list on the left based on the characters you have chosen.

      At any point you can also click on the SIMPLIFY button that appears in the left hand column above the species list.  Doing so eliminates both questions and states within questions that do not help resolve the identity of the species remaining on the list.  Clicking this button also adds those appropriate questions that were not included in the initial list of questions present when the guide was first opened.  Additionally, hitting the SIMPLIFY key will also reorder the questions alphabetically.

      Both the SEARCH and SIMPLIFY buttons can be clicked as often as you wish.  We usually click on the SEARCH button after answering a question, just to get a sense of the questions that best help eliminate species the quickest and to make sure that we haven’t made some fatal error.  We suggest waiting to click on the SIMPLIFY button until you have a reasonably small list of species left or have answered most of the questions you are comfortable with on the first page.  If you hit the SIMPLIFY button earlier in the process it will bring up a potentially very large list of additional questions, that may not be as useful or as easy to use as the initial ones.

      Strategy - Especially when you are unfamiliar with the species within a genus, it is very useful to take some extra time to double check your initial identification.  In many cases, there will be pictures and extra information stored as a link to the species name.  Those can be compared to your specimen (be aware that males and females often look quite different from one another).

      The next step to verifying your species ID is to compare your specimen to the complete list of the scored characteristics of that species.   To get a list of those characteristics, click on the MENU link at the very top of the page.  At the top of the left hand column, click on the CHARACTERS option. Next, click on the species you wish to review.  Finally, hit the SUBMIT button to get a list of scored characteristics.

      One nice feature of the Discoverlife guides is that there are many paths to the final answer of correct species identification.  This feature can be exploited when checking your identifications.  By hitting the SIMPLIFY button at the very beginning, you will display ALL the questions for the guides.  By answering a different set of initial questions, a different species will remain on the list. These new questions and species may expose some flaw in your initial identification which will become obvious if you don’t return to the same species identification at the end.  

      Hint:  These guides are easier to use than dichotomous keys.  However, answering questions incorrectly will still yield WRONG IDENTIFICATIONS, so be careful and conservative in your answering.

       The RESTART link, located at the top of the page in the header, restarts the guide at the beginning.

      Advanced Uses of These Guides - By pressing the MENU link at the top of the page, the simple species list found normally in the left hand column is replaced with a set of new options used by individuals building or editing guides.  Some of these features are also useful when exploring the identity of a species.  Don’t worry about exploring any of the features found in the MENU page, as only the guide developers have permission to make permanent changes.

      The CHARACTERS option will give you the scored characters for any of the species you have checked.

      The DIFFERENCES option will give you the differences in scoring among any 2 or more species you click.

      Clicking the HAS key restarts the guide but brings up ALL the characters for that guide in alphabetical order.  Additionally, a new set of 2-3 buttons has been added at the top of each characters section; the NOT, ONLY, and HAS buttons (sometimes the NOT button may be turned off).  If you don’t click any of these 3 buttons the guide acts as it normally does.  If, however, you click on the HAS button along with one of the character states…. hitting the SEARCH button will generate a list of species on the left that will include only those species that have been scored as having that character.  What will be missing are those species that were never scored for that character at all.  Similarly the ONLY button provides a list of species that have been scored for that character alone.  This means that if a species was scored as possibly having all or more than one of the possible states, it will not be displayed if the ONLY button was clicked.  The NOT button provides a list of species have not been scored for the selected character state(s).

      The Discoverlife website also has a HELP link, which takes you to even more details on some of the more advanced features.

      If you have questions about any of the bee guides please contact Sam Droege at sdroege@... or 301.497.5840.  My lab is open to anyone who would like to come learn to process and identify their collection of bees.  Most of the time we have space, computers, and microscopes available as well as access to our synoptic collection.

      Using Previously Identified Specimens as an Aid in Learning Your Bees - When first starting out, you will learn how to identify bees far more quickly if you use pre-identified specimens than if you try to immediately key out the bees you have collected.  Because you already know the identity of the specimen, you can track your progress and reflect on your errors while using the guide and the mind/eye/guide learning loop will take place more quickly.  If you use unidentified specimens, you may find it difficult to initially feel 100% confident that your id was correct.

      There are two ways to approach the situation.  One is to use the guides directly.  After selecting each state of each character you believe your specimen expresses from the selections available on the computer screen, click the search button.  You can then watch the list of matching specimens on the left side of the screen to see if your species or genus remains on the list.  If it does not, you know which state of which character you entered that lead to the incorrect match.  

      Alternatively, you can go to the menu section of the guide and call up the entire list of scored states/characters of the species or genus you have on hand.  Once you are in the menu section, you click the radio button next to “score,”  then click the box next to the species you want to investigate, and finally click the submit button.  All the information for that species will appear onscreen and you can compare every scored character in the guide to the characters you see on your specimen, thus familiarizing yourself will all the characters in the guide.  You will also find that you can “see” certain characters easily and others may remain difficult for you to interpret or find, thus helping you decide which characters you will preferentially use when keying out that group.

      Feel free to contact Sam Droege for a set of identified specimens to use.  

      Final Hint:  If you find any errors or can think of a better way to do anything with these guides, please contact Sam.

      Acknowledgements:  Many thanks to Liz Sellers for the many helpful edits to this section.

      Sam Droege  sdroege@...                      
      w 301-497-5840 h 301-390-7759 fax 301-497-5624
      USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center
      BARC-EAST, BLDG 308, RM 124 10300 Balt. Ave., Beltsville, MD  20705

      Beliefs associated with bees go back to Hellenistic Greece and before where they were understood to be related to and a manifestation of the 
      muse from which comes the bees alter identity of the muse's bird. And, the practice of telling of the bees of important events in the lives of the
      family has been for hundreds of years a widely observed practice and, although it varies somewhat among peoples, it is
      invariably a most elaborate ceremonial. The procedure is that as soon as a member of the family has breathed his or her
      last a younger member of the household, often a child, is told to visit the hives. and rattling a chain of small keys taps on the
      hive and whispers three times: 

                Little Brownies, little brownies, your mistress is dead.
                Little Brownies, little brownies, your mistress is dead.
                Little Brownies, little brownies, your mistress is dead.

      A piece of funeral crepe is then tied to the hive and after a period of time funeral sweets are brought to the hives for the bees to feed upon. The
      bees are then invariably invited to the funeral and have on a number of recorded occasions seen fit to attend.

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