As long as we’ve lived in our home, a colony of bumblebees has nested in the roof of our front porch. For years we’ve watched generations of bumblebees come and go, often quite closely. Our yard, edged with wildflowers and native plants (that sounds so much more elegant than “we don’t mow much”) is a pollinator’s paradise in many ways, and we’ve been delighted to see them among the nearly 100 species of pollinators we’ve spotted over the years. Because we live in such close proximity, the bumblebees, l like the Pheobes that nest under the porch eves, are old friends.
Part of my farm business involves the production of native plants for gardeners interested in attracting native pollinators, for people reclaiming land from invasive species, or building rain or other appropriate native gardens. I save seed from a dozen species that are pollinated by bumblebees, and rely on them to support my farm work in a host of ways. In return, we try to provide good habitat.
It is disturbing, then, to learn that a recent PNAS paper suggests that in the last 20 years four species of Bombus have declined by 96%. Although we’ve known for a long time that native pollinators were under quite as much pressure as honeybees, the exact parameters of this are still disturbing. A reuters story goes on to observe:
This is the way to pollinate tomatoes, Cameron said — although smaller bees can accomplish the same effect if enough cluster on a single flower.
Several reports have documented the disappearance of bumblebees in Europe and Asia, but no one had done a large national study in the Americas.
Cameron’s team did a three-year study of 382 sites in 40 states and also looked at more than 73,000 museum records.
“We show that the relative abundance of four species have declined by up to 96 percent and that their surveyed geographic ranges have contracted by 23 percent to 87 percent,” they wrote.
While no crops are in immediate danger, the results show that experts need to pay attention, Cameron said. Pollinators such as bees and bats often have specific tongue lengths and pollination behaviors that have evolved along with the species of plants they pollinate.
Bumblebees can fly in colder weather than other species, and are key to pollinating native species in the tundra and at high elevations, Cameron said.
Entirely apart from their merits as pollinators, life without bumblebees would be immeasurably sadder. They come out earlier than the honey bees, and the world without their gentle, comical presence is unimaginable. One of Asher’s first words was “Bumbee!” shouted with absolute delight. In his 18 month old mind, all flying insects (and the occasional hummingbird) were bumbees, multiplying almost infinitely, until between our colony and his constant sightings, the world overflowed with Bombus. How awful to imagine that their decline was as vast as his multiplication.