Native pollinator specialist Robbin Thorp, distinguished emeritus professor of entomology at UC Davis, greeted a visitor on Feb. 14 in his office in the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility.
This visitor didn't talk, though. She buzzed.
And she buzzed right over to his window.
Well, hello, black-tailed bumble bee, Bombus melanopygus!
"Guess all one needs to do is sit and wait," he wrote in an email to bumble bee enthusiasts. "Eventually a gyne will find her way into one's office. This one was buzzing against my window just a few minutes ago trying to get back outside."
She came to the right place.
Thorp, a noted expert on bumble bees, is the co-author of Bumble Bees of North America: An Identification Guide (Princeton University) and California Bees and Blooms: A Guide for Gardeners and Naturalist (Heyday). He also teaches at The Bee Course, an annual workshop hosted by the American Museum of Natural History at the Southwestern Research Station, Portal, Ariz. (The Bee Course is meant for "conservation biologists, pollination ecologists and other biologists who want to gain greater knowledge of the systematics and biology of bees," according to the website. This year's course is Aug. 21-31.)
The black-tailed bumble bee, native to North America, is one of only 250 species worldwide in the genus Bombus.
What's next with Thorp's bumble bee?
A nest box in an almond tree near the Laidlaw facility--feed her some honey, make her feel at home, "then let her fly out, hopefully to return and establish a nest."
Insect photographer and naturalist Allan Jones of Davis discovered and photographed three Bombus melanopygus foraging on manzanita on Jan. 27 in the UC Davis Arboretum. In doing so, he won the science-based, friendly competition among a small group of bumble bee enthusiasts in Yolo and Solano counties searching for the first bumble bee of the year.
But Allan Jones went looking for his bumble bee; Thorp's bumble bee came to him...
Arthur Shapiro, distinguished professor of evolution and ecology at UC Davis, annually sponsors the "Beer for a Butterfly" contest, offering a pitcher of beer for the first cabbage white butterfly (Pierae rapae) of the year found in the three-county area of Sacramento, Yolo and Sacramento. He launched the contest in 1972 as part of his long-term studies of butterfly life cycles and climate. This year he again won the contest; he collected a newly eclosed butterfly at 1:56 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 19 near the Solano Park Apartments on the UC Davis campus.
But where's the first bumble bee of the year in the Yolo county area?
At 2:02 today (Friday, Jan. 27) naturalist and insect photographer Allan Jones of Davis alerted us: "Two Bombus melanopygus on manzanita just east of the redwood grove (UC Davis Arboretum)."
And then he found another melanopygus. It was a three-in-one day.
The story behind the story: five years ago, a small group of keen-eyed bumble bee aficionados (Robbin Thorp, distinguished emeritus professor of entomology at UC Davis and co-author of Bumble Bees of North America: An Identification Guide; and three naturalists and insect photographers Gary Zamzow and Allan Jones of Davis, and yours truly of UC Davis) launched our own contest.
In an unusual twist, Jones found both genders at the same time. After finding and photographing two males just east of the Arboretum's redwood grove, he spotted and photographed a female just west of it.
"Surprising to see males this early in the season," noted Thorp, who co-authored the book, California Bees and Blooms: A Guide for Gardeners and Naturalists. "Unusual to see males before any workers are on site. Could be from a gyne that overwintered but was not mated before she went into hibernation; or maybe the sperm she received were not viable; or maybe she was unable to release sperm from her spermatheca to some eggs as they passed through her reproductive tract."
"At any rate," Thorp told Jones, in congratulating him, "you got two firsts for the season at one time."
Great job, Allan Jones! And the bumble bee season begins...
It's sort of like the wonders of the world but this is a science-based event at UC Davis. Scheduled Saturday, Feb. 18, it's a special day for the public to go behind the scenes to see 12 collections and learn how scientists conduct research.
You'll gain first-hand knowledge. You'll see everything from honey bees to hawks, and from bugs to botanical displays.
The event, open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., will "showcase natural history, biodiversity and the cultural-ecological interface," said coordinator Tabatha Yang, education and outreach coordinator for the Bohart Museum of Entomology.
The open house is free and open to all; parking is also free. All collections are within walking distance on campus except for the Häagen-Dazs Honey Bee Haven on Bee Biology Road for the Raptor Center on Old Davis Road, and
The following will be open from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.:
- Arboretum and Public Garden, headquartered on LaRue Road
- Bohart Museum of Entomology, Academic Surge Building
- California Raptor Center, Old Davis Road
- Museum of Wildlife and Fish Biology, Academic Surge Building
- Paleontology Collection, Earth and Physical Sciences Building
- Phaff Yeast Culture Collection, Earth and Physical Sciences Building
- Viticulture and Enology Culture Collection, Earth and Physical Sciences Building
The following will be open from noon to 4 p.m.:
- Anthropology Museum Young Hall
- Botanical Conservatory, greenhouses along Kleiber Hall Drive
- Center for Plant Diversity, Sciences Lab Building
- Häagen-Dazs Honey Bee Haven, Bee Biology Road
- Nematode Collection, Sciences Lab Building
All participating museums and collections have active education and outreach programs, Yang said, but the collections are not always accessible to the public. In the event of rain, alternative locations are planned for the outdoor sites. Maps, signs and guides will be available at all the collections, online, and on social media, including Facebook and Twitter, @BioDivDay.
For further information about the event, access the UC Davis Biodiversity Museum Day website.
That's the sound of success.
It finally happened. The beleaguered rusty-patched bumble bee, Bombus affinis, is now listed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as an endangered species, the first bee in the continental United States to be listed under the Endangered Species Act.
So many folks helped spearhead this project. Bumble bee expert Robbin Thorp, distinguished emeritus professor of entomology at the University of California, Davis, and co-author of Bumble Bees of North America: An Identification Guide (Princeton University) helped sound the alarm.
Thorp co-authored a 2010 petition seeking an endangered status for Bombus affinis. The Xerces Society of Invertebrate Conservation, along with Thorp and others, submitted the petition to the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2013. In 2015, agency officials agreed to consider it. In 2016, they proposed protection. Then on Jan. 10, 2017, the Fish and Wildlife Service listed the rusty-patched bumble bee as an endangered species. (See Xerces press release.)
Other key players in making this all happen included natural history photographer/filmmaker Clay Bolt and his friends at the Day's Edge Productions, which created the award-winning film, A Ghost in the Making: Searching for the Rusty Patched Bumble Bee with support from the Xerces Society and others. The result: nearly 200,000 persons signed a petition seeking endangered status for the bee.
The rusty-patched bumble bee was once found in 28 states in the eastern and upper midwest United States, along with the District of Columbia and two Canadian provinces. Since the late 1990s, however, its population has declined by nearly 90 percent, according to Sarina Jepsen, director of endangered species for the Xerces Society.
"The rusty patched bumble bee is threatened with extinction," Jepsen wrote in the petition. "Possible causes of its decline include pathogens, habitat loss or degradation, pesticide use, and climate change. Reduced genetic diversity, which could be a result of declining, isolated populations caused by any of the aforementioned factors, likely also threatens this species with extinction. Furthermore, existing regulations are wholly inadequate to protect this species."
Jepsen described bumble bees as "iconic pollinators that contribute to our food security and the healthy functioning of our ecosystems."
Enter Clay Bolt who set out to find, photograph and document the critically imperiled bumble bee. He moved from state to state, habitat to habitat, museum to museum, meeting with scientists and conservationists. Finally, he found the living breathing rusty-patched bumble bee in the University of Wisconsin arboretum. You can see his excitement and learn about his incredible journey in the amazing Ghost in the Making.
Bolt related that he first became aware of the plight of the rusty-patched bumble bee while looking at specimens in the collection at Great Smoky Mountains National Park. "There was a stuffed passenger pigeon in the same room, frozen in time, but no longer among us in nature," he told us. "It was once the most numerous bird on the planet and then it was no more. This has always haunted me. I decided then that I had to do everything in my power to attempt to bring more attention to this beautiful little bee before it went the same way."
With friends from Day's Edge Productions and the Xerces Society, Bolt made the film about the bee, helped develop the petition, and spoke on Capitol Hill and other high-profile events to spotlight its plight. "Through all of this, I kept thinking back to seeing this amazing little animal in the field," Bolt said. "Watching it fly. Witnessing it do what it had been doing for thousands of years. It had no idea that its fate was in our hands."
"I am just so encouraged and grateful for the public's outcry in support of this species," Bolt said. "This was an effort that would have never been possible without so many people working together to see it through. I am grateful that my images played even a small part in this historic occasion. These are the moments that make all of the hours of work and worry worthwhile."
One observation in Ghost in the Making particularly resonates: "We spend so much time and effort making life better for ourselves, the least we can do is make life possible for this bee." The film advocates that we all do our part: provide flowers, a safe place to nest, and a pesticide-free environment.
How many other bumble bees should be listed as endangered? "That's difficult to answer, mainly due to a lack of good information," said Thorp. "Most of our bumble bee species seem to be doing well according to our most recent assessments. But at least one eastern cuckoo bumble bee may be declining because its host bumble bees have declined. About a quarter of our bumble bees may be at risk, but we need more information. One that used to be common here in the Central Valley, Bombus sonorus, basically disappeared from our area about a dozen years ago, but it is doing well in the southern part of its range in southern California and Arizona."
Meanwhile the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is reviewing three other species of bees for possible inclusion as endangered. They include Franklin's bumble bee, the western bumble bee and the yellow-banded bumble bee.
Thorp, who has been monitoring Franklin's bumble bee, Bombus franklini, since 1998 (See Dec. 12 Bug Squad), hasn't seen the bumble bee in 10 years within its five-county range of southern Oregon and northern California. He doesn't want to say the "E" word--extinct. Not yet. He thinks this may be the year he'll find it.
This week, however, is a cause for celebration. The rusty-patched bumble bee is now an endangered species, in danger of extinction, and we can now begin the process to protect it and recover it.
Nice to see you!
That's how we greeted our very last bumble bee of 2016.
The yellow-faced bumble bee, Bombus vosnesenskii, apparently came out of hibernation and started nectaring on mallow Nov. 14 at the Natural Bridges State Park, Santa Cruz. We were at the park to see the overwintering monarch butterflies, but it was definitely delightful to see another insect species as well.
Ms. Bombus buzzed from one mallow to the other, keeping her distance from the two-legged park visitors. Once she nearly collided with an overwintering monarch heading for tropical milkweed blossoms.
B. vosnesenskii, native to the west coast of North America and found from British Columbia to Baja California, is an iconic pollinator and also an important pollinator for such crops as greenhouse tomatoes. It's among the bumble bees featured in the book, Bumble Bees of North America: An Identification Guide (Princeton University), the award-winning work of Paul H. Williams, Robbin W. Thorp, Leif L. Richardson and Sheila R. Colla.
When you click on the Princeton site, you'll hear the familiar buzz of bumble bees. It's just like encountering them in a wildflower meadow and listening to them take flight. It's a sound, unfortunately, that we're not hearing that much any more. The world's bumble bee population is declining, and some species are extinct or critically imperiled.
Speaking of bumble bees, did you see the paper, “Bumble Bees of Montana,” published this week by faculty and students in the Montana State University College of Agriculture in the Annals of the Entomological Society of America (AESA)? The scientists researched and compiled the state's first inventory of bumble bees known to live in Montana.
"The first time a bumble bee was recorded in Montana was in the journals of the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1805," wrote Jenny Lavey of the MSU News Service.
Four scientists co-authored the paper:
- Michael Ivie, associate professor of entomology in the MSU Department of Plant Sciences and Plant Pathology
- Kevin O'Neill, professor of entomology in the MSU Department of Land Resources and Environmental Sciences,
- Casey Delphia, MSU research scientist, and
- Amelia Dolan, former MSU entomology graduate student
"Because of Montana's size, landscape diversity and regional junction of eastern and western geographies, when it comes to bumble bees, Montana hosts a diverse, large and globally relevant community of species,” Ivie said in the news release. “Our research shows 28 different species of Bombus, with four more expected to make the list. That's the largest number of bumble bee species recorded for a state in the entire country."
Said Dolan: "It was amazing because we had people collecting specimens across the state, in varying elevations and diverse ecosystems – areas we alone wouldn't have had access to in the time that we had to complete the project. The number of species is representative of Montana's wild spaces and diverse landscapes that host these bees."
When was Bombus vosnesenskii first recorded in Montana? In 1923 (Frison).
If you want to hear more about bumble bees and other bees (some 1600 species of bees reside in California), be sure to attend a free two-hour presentation on "Bee Aware Bee Cause" at 1:30 p.m., Saturday, Jan. 7 by Robbin Thorp at the Rush Ranch Nature Center, 3521 Grizzly Island Road, Suisun. A worldwide expert on bees, Thorp is a distinguished emeritus professor of entomology at UC Davis who continues his research, writings and bee identification work. (See information on the event on previous Bug Squad blog.)