Magazine article The New Yorker

Bee's Knees

Magazine article The New Yorker

Bee's Knees

Article excerpt


In the summer of 1909, an entomologist named Anton Krausse strolled the narrow streets of Sardinia netting bumblebees. He plunked his haul in a jar of ethanol and shipped the bees back to the American Museum of Natural History, in New York, where they've been sitting on a dusty shelf for the past hundred and six years. On a recent Friday morning, Melody Doering grabbed Krausse's jar from among a jumble of yellowing vials and bottles. The bees inside were dishevelled from their century-long submersion. "The longer you keep things in alcohol, the crispier they get," she said.

Doering, who is sixty-four, has a graying pixie cut and wears electric-blue eyeglasses. She works two days a week preparing specimens for storage in the museum's research collection. By head count, the entomology department contributes the majority of the museum's thirty-three-million-strong collection of specimens. "Certainly, we have the most by leg count," Doering said. She works mainly with bees and wasps, sorting them into families after mounting them with steel pins, ready to be poked at by entomologists.

Specimens sometimes come from the field preserved in ethanol, which makes them gooey and unfit for display. (The chemical leeches the insects' lipids, turning the alcohol a nice shade of yellow.) Doering's job is to get the bees looking as much like themselves as possible, which means washing, drying, and brushing their matted fur. This isn't just for aesthetic reasons; beautifying the insects helps their features stand out, making them easier to study.

Doering has worked at the museum since 2007, when she answered an ad in the Times for a "part-time preparator" with fine motor skills. A former professional organist and a knitting buff, she has steady hands and an eye for detail, two qualities that made her a perfect stylist for hymenoptera. "And my hair weaves are just amazing!" she said. She operates the bee salon out of her fifth-floor ofice, crammed with chairs, microscopes, and intimidating posters of enlarged wasp heads.

At her worktable the other day, Doering extracted the first of Krausse's bees using a long pair of tweezers. "This is No. 1," she said. She dunked the bee in a tiny bottle containing her special blend of "bee shampoo": a few drops of archival soap and deionized water. …

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