Conference plenary – Laurence Packer

Here another post by one of the conference plenary speakers:

Laurence PackerLaurence Packer is a melittologist (one who studies wild bees) and has been at York University since 1988.  He received his PhD from the University of Toronto in 1986.  He runs one of the largest and most diverse bee research laboratories in the world.  In addition to training undergraduate and graduate students in matters entomological, he is also very active in outreach, giving numerous talks to diverse audiences each year.  His book: Keeping the Bees (HarperCollins), was well received –being referred to as “a love affair with bees” as well as a humorous romp through matters melittological.

Bees are all the rage these days, everyone wants to know about them. There is a lot to be learned.  I have at least one hundred species waiting for me to have the time to describe them….

The sting apparatus of Orphana inquirenda – a bee that cannot sting

PackerFig1My research career has taken numerous twists and turns.  I started out as a sociobiologist with a side interest in phylogenetic approaches to answering questions about the origins of eusociality in bees.  It turned out that the bees that seemed closest to any recent origin of queen and worker castes are those that nest in the ground.  Consequently, I spent a lot of time digging holes.  In order to assess the evolutionary pattern of social evolution in these bees; I started developing phylogenies for them.  Progress on these morphology-based phylogenies was interrupted by the discovery that nobody had looked seriously at the morphological richness to be found in the sting apparatus – a part of bee anatomy most people are well aware of, but which systematists had generally ignored.  That encouraged me to look at other understudied parts of the anatomy of bees, but then….. along came DNA barcoding.

PackerFig3Starting in 2004, I transferred much of my research effort into either developing the DNA barcode database for bees, or working on a weird group of primarily Chilean bees (Image on the left – and that’s another story, but the current career twist concerns bee biogeography and barcoding in the world’s driest desert – see belwo). My laboratory has since generated most of the bee barcodes available on BOLD, with records from all over the world (over 32,000 records from approximately 90 countries so far). PackerFig4

In combination with my ongoing interests in bee biodiversity and taxonomy, the DNA barcode library has yielded a large number of interesting findings.  One is that the commonest and one of the most easily identified wild bee species in North America, the “species” I had studied for my sociobiological PhD turns out to be at least 3 species with large genetic distances (whether based on Neolithic era technologies of allozymes, nuclear gene sequences or DNA barcodes) but with seemingly no consistent morphological differences among them. PackerFig5 This background put me in a good position to evaluate some of the early criticisms of DNA barcoding levelled by “traditional” taxonomists.  It was quite easy to demonstrate that, when the same criticisms were turned on their heads, traditional approaches were rarely any better, and usually worse, than DNA barcoding.  This was particularly the case when applied to the issues barcoding was aimed at addressing: discrimination of closely related species.  Having built up a world class collection, I am now working towards a retirement to be spent curating morphological and barcode databases for the world’s bees.