LEWISTON, Idaho — Everybody seems to love bumblebees.
The native insects are generally embraced by humans, who often celebrate them in children’s stories and even sometimes dress like them for Halloween or other costume-themed events. But it turns out most people really don’t know much about them, how their populations are doing and specific actions that can be taken to preserve them.
That is starting to change with the worldwide focus on the importance of pollinators and the critical services they provide both to agricultural crops and native plants.
“There is just something charismatic about these little black-and-yellow fuzzy things that bumble through our gardens checking out flowers,” said Joel Sauder, a nongame biologist for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game at Lewiston. “They are very docile. You really have to irritate a bumblebee to get it to sting you. Maybe if you grab it with bare hands or step on it, but they don’t come after you like even a honeybee will, let alone a wasp, which are mean.”
Sauder, who said he is a bumblebee enthusiast but not an expert, is heading his agency’s participation in a project that aims to track bumblebee populations across the Pacific Northwest. Led by the Xerxes Society, a conservation organization that specializes in the oft-neglected invertebrate species of animals, the project has recruited dedicated citizen scientists to survey vast swaths of the region and record which types of bumblebees are present and what plants they are using.
“There are only so many places (biologists) can go visit, but if you can get an army of citizens to do it for you, you can get vastly more work done,” Sauder said.
For now, he said the project has a good corps of volunteers who have already signed up to participate in the Pacific Northwest Bumblebee Atlas and started training. It’s an intensive process that takes a significant time commitment.
But Sauder said there is a way for people to casually participate in bumblebee mapping and thereby conservation.
But first some facts.
According to Rich Hatfield of the Xerxes Society, there are more than 3,000 species of native bees in North America. A small sliver of them are bumblebees, including about 47 species of bumblebees in North America. The Pacific Northwest, with its rich diversity of habitat and dramatic elevation changes, has about 25 species.
Unlike honeybees, bumblebees don’t overwinter in hives or make honey. Instead, just the queens survive the cold months. In the spring, they emerge from often solitary nests and begin the process of collecting pollen and reproducing. As the summer progresses, the queen stays in the colony, produces worker bees and grows the colony.
Sauder said they are particularly good pollinators because they have high flower fidelity.
“Once they figure out how to get the pollen out of a particular flower type they tend to go back to that flower type, and so they go from plant to plant of the same species,” he said.
That’s important to plant reproduction, or pollination.
“Pollination is essentially plant sex. Pollen is the male part. It has to be communicated to the female part of the flower, and something has to carry that,” Sauder said.
To be successful, the pollen has to come from the same species of plant. That makes the tendency of bumblebees to visit the same species a boon to plants, especially native plants.
“Pollinators play a large role in those plants being able to reproduce, expand and survive,” Sauder said. “Pollinators are an important part of our ecosystem.”
Despite the general popularity of bumblebees, nonnative honeybees get much more attention. Readers are likely familiar with colony collapse disorder — a significant decline in honeybee populations — that has been traced to a variety of causes ranging from disease, parasites and pesticides. Their decline, and that of native pollinators, is a threat to agriculture.
In an online video, Hatfield said native bumblebees face many of the same problems as honeybees, and as much as 25% of them face some level of extinction risk. Mapping their habitat and figuring out which plant types are important to them will help land managers better include bumblebees in their management plans.
An easy way for people to participate in the project without committing a lot of time is to sign up for Bumblebee Watch with the Xerxes Society. The online tool encourages people to take pictures of bumblebees they see. Then they can log onto bumblebeewatch.org and upload the photos and attempt to identify the species while also placing the sighting on a map. Though there can be a time lag, experts with the organization monitor the site and confirm the species type.
Sauder said sightings from undeveloped areas such as national forests are particularly helpful.
“That is where the data would be most useful,” he said. “We have a lot of information of what species we have here (and in other cities and towns), but if you look at the Nez Perce or Clearwater national forests out there, there is virtually no information.”
People who would like to do something for bumblebees and other pollinators can take action in their own backyards as well. Sauder said planting blooming flowers, especially native species, is a great way to help conserve bees and other pollinators like butterflies, moths, beetles and flies. It’s good to pick a variety of plants that bloom at different times from early spring to late fall.
Lastly, bumblebees can help those who may not be super enthusiastic about yardwork by giving them a reason to be lazy in the fall. Bumblebee queens often overwinter in brush piles, garden litter or piles of leaves.
“It’s the perfect excuse not to rake leaves and not to have a manicured lawn,” Sauder said. “Having a brush pile or other things that give them some place to hibernate through the winter and flowers that stretch through the spring, summer and as much of the fall as you can get are great steps for pollinator habitat.”