Posted by: cindydyer | November 22, 2009

Bumble Bee

by Mary Ellen Ryall

Since 2001 I have longingly listened to bumble bees humming in honeysuckle bushes in my garden each spring. The honeysuckle bushes flower in May. Two years ago I didn’t hear the symphony of bumble bees. In 2009 there was only a slight hum among the yellow and white blossoms. (Bumble bee photo © Cindy Dyer)

I love these bees that delight me with the sight of pollen all over their faces, hairy bodies and legs. The sheer sound of buzzing makes me happy. This behavior happens when bumble bees grab a flower and shake it by vibrating their wing muscles to release pollen. I took for granted that the bumble bee would come and bless my heart and garden each spring.

Something is happening to our native bees. I know that colony collapse disorder is killing European honey bees (Apis mellifera—western honey bee). It is a complicated science to unravel. There are mites, overuse of pesticide and herbicides and loss of native habitat. Scientific American has documented that the agricultural practice of monoculture is also playing havoc on pollinators. Pollinators need biodiversity of natural environments for nectar source nutrition (Cox-Foster and van Engelsdorp 2009).

Recently I met Elaine Evans, author of Befriending Bumble Bees, and learned that some native bumble bee species are in trouble also. After reading the book I realized that I may have seen the Bombus affinis—the rusty patch bumble bee—which is in decline. I contacted The Xerces Foundation at http://www.xerces.org/rusty-patched-bumble-bee/. According to Xerces Foundation, “A major threat to the survival of these wild bees is the spread of diseases from commercially produced bees that are transported throughout the country.” Please view Oregon Public Broadcasting’s video on the rusty patch bumble bee here.

When did things go so terribly wrong? Between 1940 and 1960, large-scale agricultural practices began to emerge and loss of prairie, forest and wetland habitats disappeared. I live in a fairly remote area that to the best of my knowledge does not have beekeepers that are transporting commercially produced bees around the country. Perhaps there is hope here for the survival of Bombus affinis.

In 2010 I am going to be vigilant in recording bumble bee species and their numbers. We will invite citizen scientists to help us record bumble bees at the Monarch Butterfly Habitat in Shell Lake, Wisconsin. I will also record bumble bees at two other locations. Digital photography will be used to record and report our findings to Xerces Foundation. Citizen scientists are needed all over the U.S. to record and photograph the three different species that are in decline. Please visit http://www.xerces.org/bumblebees/ to learn more about the species in trouble and how you can assist us.

There are other ways to fight back too. In 2008, for the first time, the U.S. Congress modified its agricultural policy to include pollination protection measures. They are encouraging the setting aside of conservation land where wildflowers can grow and provide nectar. Happy Tonics, Inc. implemented a Monarch Butterfly Habitat, a restored remnant native tall grass prairie, in Shell Lake, Wisconsin, where native bees are flourishing.

Anna Martineau Merritt, photographer and author of Life, Through the Window of My Car, raised an alarming thought. She mentioned that bees need a floral corridor of at least five miles away from genetic engineered crops. The United Kingdom suggests 3.75 miles between GE crops and non GE crop sources. A looming problem may be that a bee can fly as far as it has to in order to gather pollen and bring it back to the nest.

Without native habitat readily available, the bee has to travel farther. The connection here is that the precious bumble bee may unwittingly transport genetically engineered pollen into native habitat and non genetic engineered crop fields. The scary scenario of this might be that precious life giving honey could become contaminated with GE pollen. To counteract this it is best to plant a native plant corridor within a two mile radius of the nest. This is quite possible where native bees don’t need to travel so far. A perfect example of this is northwest Wisconsin, where the Monarch Butterfly Habitat is located and where there is an abundance of native habitat and non GE crops.

It is going to take a native floral corridor across the country to help pollinators including the beloved bumble bee. Each of us can let wildflowers grow where we live. Happy Tonics has an online store at www.happytonics.org, where we sell common milkweed seed for the monarch butterfly. We have found that bumble bees love the sweet intoxicating nectar. Buy our seed and help the pollinating monarch butterfly (a butterfly in crisis) and native bumble bees at the same time.

This spring I plan to leave some soil undisturbed to invite the bumble bee to come and live in the garden and I’m going to tempt them with native wildflower and herb nectar plants.

Sources:
Evens, E., Burns, I., and Spivak, M. 2007, Befriending the Bumble Bees, University of Minnesota Extension.
Cox-Foster, D. and vanEngelsdrop, D. April 2009, Saving the Honeybee, Scientific American, 40-47.

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