On Confronting Our Mistakes

augochlorella_aurata_1563
Augochlorella aurata (Family Halictidae). Photo by Jomegat, Wikimedia Commons

Last fall, I wrote in a bee update that about 40% of our 2018 summer bee collection belonged to one species of small, metallic green bee: Augochlora pura. 

Turns out I was wrong. With a little more experience and a fresh look at our collection, I’ve been able to determine that of the 70-some-odd bees I originally keyed out to Augochlora pura, only 2 belong to that species.

That’s right. Last fall, I misidentified 97% of my little green gems. I totally bombed the Halictid (sweat bee) test.

Some instinct must have told me I was way off because as I worked through the rest of the bee families over the spring, I had it in my mind that I needed to go back to the Halictids and re-examine every single one of those 70+ bees under the microscope. Just in case I’d made the same mistake 70+ times.

It was an easier task to undertake once classes were over and the students were gone – once there was nothing standing between me and absolute focus on the bees.

There are two characters I had to learn how to see that make the difference between Augochlora pura and some other kind of small, shiny, green bee. One is the presence of a keel on the abdomen – looks like a boat keel, except it’s on a bee, not a boat. The other character has to do with the number of teeth on the bee.

Here’s the odd magic of species identification: When you’re working with a particular group for the first time, it’s really hard to know what the distinguishing characters are supposed to look like – even if you have photos and sometimes even if you have an instructor pointing things out. You might think you’re seeing the right thing when you’re not. As a result, you can misidentify any number of specimens – in my case, 40% of my summer 2018 collection.

But if you work at it enough – if you’re willing to tackle the uncertainties and go through things over and over until you’re sure – there’s a moment when the curtain suddenly lifts. That character you’ve been so uncertain about for so long stands out in sharp relief. More importantly, you know you will never unsee it. No matter how many time you’ve made the same mistake in the past, you will never make that mistake again.

As I sat in the lab re-examining 70+ bees – tooth by tiny tooth – I reflected on the power of learning from our mistakes and of correcting the mistakes we’ve made.

I think it’s hard in today’s society to publicly grapple with our mistakes. We seem to have become vindictive toward ourselves and others, in the errors we make. We fail to understand why what’s obvious to us hasn’t always been obvious in the past or isn’t obvious to others right now.

Today, I look at the teeth on my tiny green bees and think, “How is it possible I didn’t see these differences from the very beginning?”

But I didn’t, and that’s okay. Rather than tear myself apart for not having seen what is obvious to me now, wouldn’t it be better to celebrate that I worked hard at this until I acquired the necessary knowledge and awareness to recognize the truth?

Wouldn’t it be better to confront and honor our mistakes – even the big ones – as part of our learning process, as a necessary step in every person’s effort to grow and become better at who they are and what they do?

Today I can tell you, with confidence, that all the bees I originally thought belonged to one species in fact belong to 3 species within 2 genera: Augochlora pura, Augochlorella aurata, and Augochlorella persimillis. All three species are important for pollination. All three are small, green and shiny, making them really hard to tell apart unless you get them under a microscope and count their beautiful little teeth.

All three have a lot to teach us, even though they don’t speak our language. I’m looking forward to their next lesson.

4 thoughts on “On Confronting Our Mistakes

  1. Replace writing with identifying bees, and it’s the same scenario at the core. Awesome, honey. We never stop learning. We never stop being WILLING to learn. It’s what keeps us both humble and energized. Mwah!

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  2. Nice post! Are the teeth little jagged things on the mandible? Teeth might be misconstrued. Is there DNA barcoding for these bees? For my tiny microbes a little DNA sequencing goes a long way. But of course your main message is an excellent one. We should look back at what we thing we know, what we think we knew and see if it stands the test of time. With my wasps I also used the technique of sending them to an expert who will know what is what. Lovely piece. Can’t wait to see you in September.

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    1. Yes, teeth are the jagged things on the mandibles. My challenge with these bees was a fork in the road where I had to distinguish between mandibles that were bidentate at the apex and mandibles that had a “small, pre-apical tooth.” DNA barcoding is picking up for bees, especially bumble bees, but a lot of groups don’t have barcodes yet. Still, it’s something I need to keep an eye on (and maybe contribute to) because where barcoding has been used, cryptic species have inevitably turned up. Missouri bee biologist Mike Ardhuser has been a big help in confirming my bee identifications, and identifying the things I can’t. But I’ve also been stubborn about wanting to learn first-hand the groups I’m most likely to see out there, at least during this first season. Something about the intimacy of interacting with the collection has been really important to me – or maybe I’m just a masochist in the lab! Looking forward to seeing you, too.

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