Category Archives: native bee decline

Bees and Barack Obama

droege bee

The bee research world has been all abuzz about a new plan released by the Obama Administration called the National Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators. We are all still in the process of reviewing and dissecting the implications of said plan, but I was elated to see that earlier today, the President of the United States of America tweeted a photo of a solitary, ground-nesting bee!

Described in the Washington Post article as a “Hairy-footed flower bee,” (Anthophora plumipes) it was photographed in the Maryland home of the USGS’s Sam Droege.

If you have the time, read the full Washington Post article, complete with several quotes from the famous bee biologist.

How the White House plans to help the humble bee maintain its buzz


The Plight of the Bumble Bee Part IV: Pandora’s Bee Box

Nate Pope, Bee Biologist Extraordinaire

Illuminated by a single red light, Nate bent over the open cardboard box, alternately counting objects with a clicker and manipulating objects with gloved hands holding a long pair of tweezers. A swelling chorus of low buzzing made me more than a little nervous. Even though I knew that the  contents of the box couldn’t escape, I kept seeing phantom angry, swooping objects in the darkness.

In the above photo, Nate is removing pollen stores from a bee nest to see how much they ate this week (thus the gloves, long tweezers, and angry buzzing). Bees’ eyes are not designed to see red, so Nate works under red light to keep the bees from flying away when he opens the box.

From the title of the post, you’ve probably guessed what kind of bees Nate is studying.

Bombus impatiens colony. Please excuse the poor photo quality!

This is a domesticated colony of the Common Eastern Bumble Bee, Bombus impatiens. It is the most common bumble bee encountered on the east coast of North America from Ontario, Canada to Florida, USA.

By far the largest colony member, the queen perches protectively over a profusion of pots in which food (pollen and/or a thin watery honey) is stored, and larvae are raised. The queen is surrounded by smaller worker bumble bees. Bombus impatiens typically build underground nests.

Alternative Pollinators

(c) David Besa 2005

Despite their widespread use as agricultural pollinators, honey bees are often surprisingly bad at their jobs compared to native bees. Tomatoes, for example, require sonication, or buzz pollination. This involves producing large vibrations to shake pollen free from pollen-holding structures in the plant: something that bumble bees do quite well, but honey bees cannot. Farmers that grow tomatoes in greenhouses can therefore purchase colonies online, which are shipped via snail mail in cardboard boxes. The bumble bees are released in the greenhouse to pollinate their tomato plants to ensure a robust yield.

The Dark Side of Globalization: Tiny Smallpox Blankets

Most of us Americans have heard stories in school about the introduction of smallpox by European settlers the Americas. Although the European settlers had some natural resistance to the disease, the indigenous peoples of the Americas, who had never encountered the disease, had no immunity. The disease ran rampant in these communities, killing millions.

Parasitic mites, such as these tracheal mites infecting the air passages of a honeybee, can be spread from one bee to another similarly to pathology in humans.

In the past decade, bumble bees have also been in in decline in the Americas. Although there are multiple causes for these declines, including habitat destruction and agricultural pesticide use, diseases transported along with Bombus impatiens colonies used for greenhouse pollination are a major culprit. Many of these bees are raised in the Old World, where they pick up diseases such as tracheal mites (bugs that live in the bee equivalent of lungs) and transport them to the New World. New World bumble bees have not evolved defenses to these diseases because, like the indigenous peoples of the Americas, the bees have never been exposed to them before. Tragically, once these diseases get out of the bee box, it is almost impossible to reverse their spread through native bee populations.

Bombus franklini, photo courtesy of Robbin Thorp. Click the picture to view the Red List Profile.

One of the casualties of the bees-in-a-box is Bombus franklini, a species discovered by UC Davis Professor Emeritus Robbin Thorp. Thorp’s research showed that from 1998-2006, sightings of B. franklini decreased drastically. Only one bee was sighted in 2006, and as far as I know, there have been no more sightings of Franklin’s bumble bee since.

For more information on how to help our sisters the bumble bees, please check out the Xerces Society’s Bumble Bee Conservation Initiative.

The Plight of the Bumble Bee Part III: Not-So-Impossible Giants

In a speech in 2008, Mike Huckabee declared, “Aerodynamic engineers once figured out that… it is aerodynamically impossible for the bumble bee to fly. But the bumble bee, being unaware of these scientific facts, goes ahead and flies anyway.”

Creationists and other anti-science factions like to gleefully toss around this little tidbit. To them, this ridiculous notion underscores the folly of scientists, a useless, arrogant group that cannot prove anything of real value.

To these people, I will not mention vaccines, or computers, or electricity, or any of the other ways in which science has enriched their lives. I will not bring up the fact that while there are many phenomena unexplained by science, this doesn’t discredit the field, but rather gives job security to future scientists like myself. What I will say is that this idea that it is scientifically impossible for bumble bees to fly is, in fact, false. For some more details, here’s an article written by Cecil Adams, the self-described “world’s smartest human.”

During a 2010 trip to Punta Arenas, Chile, however, I caught sight of a bee so large that I had to admit its flight seemed an impossibility.

La Gigante Imposible (c) 2012 MRS

It’s a shame that there is no size reference in this photo. In the magical realm of memory, I seem to remember it being between the sizes of a jumbo gumballs and a table tennis ball. This bee, which, to the annoyance of my host, I kept referring to as “la abeja más grande que he visto,” is clearly a Bombus as evidenced by her large, fuzzy body; the wings folded across the back; and the smooth, flattened hind legs (or corbicula).

While I have not been able to ascertain the exact species of this bumble bee, from an informal communication I have learned that it is native to Chile. In recent years, populations these beautiful giants, as well as other bumble bees in North and South America, have been dwindling. Robbin Thorp, a bee expert from UC Davis, thinks that the main reason for these declines has to do with the use of domestic bumblee bee colonies to pollinate crops. Let’s hope that we will find ways to save these bumbling creatures so that they can continue their not-so-impossible flight for generations to come.

(c) 2012 MRS

Wait– domestic bumble bees, you say? Please tune in next week to hear about the practice of keeping bumble bees and how it might affect the natives.

The Plight of the Bumble Bee Part I: Getting Warmed Up

After a rainy week in not-so-sunny California, blue sky is finally starting to appear in the horizon, the temperature is rising, and the cherry, apple, and almond trees are blossoming. Just as different flowers bloom at different times during the season, different bees emerge at different times as well. Recently, as I was walking around my neighborhood, I was thrilled to see my first bumble bees (Bombus) of the season. Bumble bees use an ingenious mechanism to warm themselves up and get a head start over the competition.

I have not seen the documentary Life in the Undergrowth (narrated by David Attenborough, of course) in its entirety, but one of my professors played this clip in a class, and it has some lovely infrared footage of bumblebees getting warmed up for the day:

The next few posts that I write will focus on the unfortunate plight of native bumble bees in North and South America. Similarly to the honey bee, many native bee species have been experiencing recent population declines. In the case of the bumble bee, tomato farming practices may be the culprit.