Losing Bombus


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.


More like this

Evidence seems to be mounting that widespread pesticide use in industrial agriculture might be responsible for the decline of honeybees. I wonder if the same factors might be at work here?

Much to my mother's severe displeasure I used to pet bumblebees as a child - sad that they're in decline.

Oh, and I'll be appropriating use of the word bumbee to teach my own child as it contains just the right amount of awesome.

About 4 years ago, sometime in early September, I had two students from our school out in the raspberry rows, harvesting. Along with myself, Brandon, and Cory, there were a number of pollinators enjoying themselves too, since raspberries often are still flowering while the early fruit has already matured.

Brandon, slow to speak and rather large at well over 6 feet, was always fun to watch as he gave Nature a good look over every time I was outside with him. While picking berries, he spied a nice-sized bumble bee who allowed him to pick her off the flowers. After admiring her for a bit, a little bit of King Kong over took him and he got the idea to place her in the very large, almost museum-quality garden spider web we had noticed in the previous row in order to provoke a battle between spider and bee, without asking the latter's permission.

Oh, how our little betrayed bumble bee struggled mightily against the web, her movements stirring the resident arachnid into action, who started closing in on her new found prey. A few minutes passed while the bee twisted and turned uselessly against the sticky and strong web, Brandon and Cory laughing that tiresome, smart-assed, high school laugh at her the whole time, me shaking my head. Closer the spider drew, stabbing a bit every few moments at the poor furry hymenoptera, still flailing against the bondage of the web.

Then just when we thought total capture was a sure thing, the bumble bee managed to shake herself loose, falling to the ground below.

After a moment or two, she took off, circling our group for a bit before flying right up to my face and hovering there, face-to-face with me, about a foot or so distant. She hung there for several seconds. I swear she was scolding me, and I recall offering some lame, disowning excuse of a response back to her to the effect of: "It wasn't me. It was HIM!" (with me pointing to Brandon.) "I told him not to do it - You heard me tell him he was being mean, but honestly, these kids just DON'T LISTEN!" With that, she broke the hover and buzzed out over Brandon's and Cory's shoulders, disappearing into the woods behind the main garden. With a sneer and a scowl I turned and asked Brandon rhetorically, "Why don't you pick on somebody your OWN size? She's PISSED", I said, while pointing back in the direction Ms. Bumble bee took off in, all while Brandon and Cory continued to laugh hysterically.

Maybe you had to be there, but you just had to see how the bumble bee got in my face - the teacher's face - as if to scold me for the actions and misbehaviors of my students, as if she knew *which* human was supposed to be in charge, but failed.

Maybe her flight to my face was just a coincidence and I anthropomorphized the whole encounter, but I think not.

If nothing else, I'll give Ms. Bee this much: after she had gotten back up off the ground, she could have gone after any one of us with ye olde stinger, but she opted to literally get in my face and give me a piece of her mind instead. She exhibited more class than the rest of us combined!

Sometimes.....I swear, animals are so amazing, large or small, it makes little difference. We think our species so superior while holding the other creatures in such mindless contempt.

I've never looked at a bumble bee the same since.

By the way, for those wondering, bumble bees can and do sting. I was stung by a bumble bee earlier that same summer. It was one I hadn't seen while picking up a bunch of straw she was hiding in, inadvertently almost crushing her to death.

By Stephen B. (not verified) on 05 Jan 2011 #permalink

By the way, for those wondering, bumble bees can and do sting.

Not only can & do they sting, they can & do sting repeatedly. Unlike honeybees, the bumblebee's stinger is barbless. You got off easy Stephen.

Years ago when my wife & I lived in rural Illinois, our mailbox was at the end of a lane about a quarter mile from the house. One nice summer evening we walked down to get our mail and a momma barn cat came with us. The cat pounced on a bumblebee emerging from its nest in the ground, angering the bee. The cat, my wife and myself were stung repeatedly. We were trying to swat it at first but before long we all three just... RAN.

By darwinsdog (not verified) on 06 Jan 2011 #permalink

I'm wondering if you have a colony of carpenter bees, not bumblebees? The latter nest on the ground while carpenter bees, as their name implies, prefer to tunnel into wood.

Nope, they are definitely bumblebees, although I realize it is atypical. We've been watching them for *years* and there's absolutely no mistaking it.

It always interests me how much normative behavior for a species varies in individuals. A friend of mine in Alaska had a problem with bald eagles eating her chickens - the local expert assured her that eagles were largely fish eaters and probably wouldn't bother her chickens. As he assured her of this, a bald eagle dropped down and took a hen.

We have ground nesting bumblebees as well, but these like the porch roof.


"the local expert assured her that eagles were largely fish eaters and probably wouldn't bother her chickens. As he assured her of this, a bald eagle dropped down and took a hen."

Oh, I love it! :-) If only there were a video!!

The number of experts, local and otherwise, that I've run into over the years, who proved to be in fact completely inexpert, is pretty high.

It strikes me as yet another aspect of our crumbling complexity; our certifying processes for experts are pretty badly broken; and I don't see any signs of anything growing to replace them.