Most of us try to avoid anything with a stinger. On the top of that list, often, are bees.
One person that is not like most people is Erica Hoaglund. Erica is a biologist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Nongame Wildlife Program.
Erica and fellow biologist Luke Groff were on the hunt for the rusty patched bumble bee on a warm sunning morning. They were near Zimmerman, MN at the Sand Dunes State Forest looking for they quarry. You see the rusty-patched bumble bee got the distinct honer earlier this year of being the very first bumble bee to be placed on the federal list of endangered species. In response to this placement the sates that are known to have been in its historic territory, such as Minnesota, started conducting surveys to get an idea of just how many are left. Just a week before Groff had seen one of them and the duo were out trying to confirm the bee’s presence through more sightings. The sighting that Groff made was the first documented sighting in modern times for Sherburne County.
Before the 1990s the territory of the rusty-patched bumble bee spanned 28 states across the Midwest and New England. They also were found in Quebec, Ontario, and Washington, D.C. That territory is now thought to have shrunk to 13 states and Ontario. This new territory is about 10 percent of its historic range. Minnesota is one state thought to be a last stronghold due to our mix of habitat types.
The bees’ population decline is being influenced by multiple factors. Pesticides, apthogens, habitat loss, and climate change are all thought to be contributing factors. A researcher in Utah believes there may even be a parasitic fungus that causes the bees to bloat and grow so fast they are unable to reproduce. Roadways contribute also as more cars means that more bees are hit and killed. But these are just possible factors, Hoaglund admits, “We don’t completely know why. But we’re seeing huge declines and we think it’s likely these different factors are working together and magnifying each other.”
It isn’t just the rusty-patched bumble bee that has fallen on to hard times. Other species of bumble bees as well as honey bees and other pollinators have all see huge declines in their populations (General Mills brought attention to this by taking Buzz the Bee off of Honey Nut Cheerios Boxes for a time). The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation is estimating that about one-quarter of North American bumble bee species may be at risk of extinction. If you look at the decline of so many different pollinators it is going to have an effect.
Bees are a huge part of the ecosystem as pollinators. Bees of all sorts are responsible for helping produce one-third of all the food we eat. Due to their size and strength Bumblebees do a form of pollination most other bees can’t. They perform what’s known as “buzz pollination” – they rapidly vibrate their flight muscles while on a plant, causing the pollen to shake off the flower. Most other insects can’t do that and it is a critical type of pollination for some plants with flowers that don’t fully open, such as tomatoes. Without bees to contribute to pollination this could lead to what biologists refer to as “cascading effects”. Another issue is the decline in the diversity of plants, insects, and other animals that are all connect via their ecosystems. As Hoaglund points out, “Insects are the most diverse class of macro-organisms on this planet, but probably the one we know least about. If you’ve ever been stung by a bee, you might wonder why we’d worry about their survival. But if we don’t, our whole ecosystem could be in trouble, including ourselves.”
The surveys for rusty-patched bumble bees is done in hopes to learn more about them. By leaning what their habitat needs and preferences are biologists can better understand what is causing declines in population and then reverse it. The identifying of sites where they reside also allows for steps to be taken to provide site-specific protections.
The budget for the Minnesota Nongame Wildlife Program is funded almost completely by voluntary donations. Most of the donations come from when people file their income tax or property tax forms. If you would like to know more about how to contribute via income tax or property tax forms more information can be found at www.mndnr.gov. For more information about rare bumblebees, or maybe you even saw one, please go to www.bumblebeewatch.org. Bumble Bee Watch is a citizen science effort to track and conserve North American bumble bees.