Natural history collections (NHCs) are rich repositories that document our planet's ecosystems, both past and present. Most states within the United States, and many countries around the world, house collections of bee specimens (Hymenoptera: Anthophila) in various stages of curation, digitization, and accessibility to researchers. Within the past decade there has been a surge to revisit NHCs to digitize specimens and create accessible databases of information. Digitized NHCs can provide a wealth of insight on the ecology, abundance, and distribution of rare and common bees. Studies comparing the historic abundance and distribution of bee species to modern collections in particular have revealed alarming trends of population decline and local extinctions that may otherwise have gone undetected. Digital specimens data may be invaluable in tracking phenological and compositional shifts in both whole bee communities and groups of concern. Carefully curated and digitized bee collections also contain valuable genetic and pollen information that can be used to detect changes in bee population structure and diet breadth, for example, at a fraction of the effort, cost, and impact required for a researcher to visit many NHCs, or to collect and process new specimens.
We will preview the rapidly growing digital vault of bee data across multiple institutions, take a virtual tour through one NHC containing nearly two million curated bee specimens in the digitization process, and discuss how NHCs contribute critical information to the understanding and detection of issues related to bee conservation. We will review the digitization process, relevant recent work, promising future directions, and highlight some limitations and biases of digital specimens data that must be considered when characterizing bee communities.