Singing the Praises of Native Bees
When most of us think of bees, our minds go to Apis melifera, the familiar, non-native European honey bee. We envision busy, perennial colonies filled with hundreds, even thousands of diligent workers. We imagine honeycombs and waggle dances; maybe we remember the thrill of watching a museum colony through glass—a glimpse into their hidden society absent the fear of being stung.
But what about the 3,000+ species of native bees that inhabit North America? Or the roughly 250 species right here in Vermont? Our Upper Valley gardens teem with a surprisingly diverse array of pollinators. Bumblebees, sweat bees, mason bees, and yes, even the dreaded carpenter bees all play an important role, often providing pollination services that honey bees cannot. Many are solitary, some even stingless; all are integral to our complex, interdependent natural communities.
Catching bees for the Vermont Bumblebee Survey
Sadly, like their non-native cousin, many native bee species are suffering declines. And while research and funding have flooded to the aid of the European honey bee, scant resources have been directed to the study of native bees, leaving few advocates to help them overcome their own suite of maladies.
With that in mind, in 2012, the Vermont Center for Ecostudies (VCE) launched a two-year bumblebee monitoring project, the Vermont Bumblebee Survey. With precious little known about native pollinators in the state, our aim was to elucidate the status of Vermont bumblebees and to make available essential information to landowners, land-use planners, policy-makers, municipalities, and others who make conservation or management decisions.
Over the course of this two-year project, and with the help of many dedicated volunteers, VCE amassed more than 10,000 observations from nearly every town and eco-region in Vermont. After much sorting, identifying, entering of data, and comparing our field results to those in historic collections, we found that of 15 historically common bumblebee species in Vermont, only 12 can now be found in the state. The rusty-patched bumblebee, once fourth in abundance among the 15, has entirely disappeared from Vermont, and was last observed in 1999. Overall, results were discouraging, to say the least.
Despite these ominous findings, there is reason for optimism. Thanks in part to data from this survey, three bumblebee species were added to Vermont’s Endangered/Threatened species list in 2015: the rusty-patched bumblebee (also now federally Endangered) and Ashton’s cuckoo bumblebee were listed as Endangered, and the yellow-banded bumblebee as Threatened. Though these designations hardly guarantee recovery of our native bumblebee populations, the added legal protection and enhanced public awareness they provide are certainly positive steps.
At the local and individual level, each of us can take action to help pollinators like the rusty-patched Bumblebee. Plant a variety of native flowers, even in small patches, which will bloom from spring through fall. Avoid using pesticides or herbicides if possible, and foster natural landscapes. Leave grass and garden plants uncut after summer to provide habitat for overwintering bees. As spring unfolds, spend some time looking for bumblebees and other native pollinators around Norwich and elsewhere in the Upper Valley. Watch them as they collect pollen and nectar for their colonies, pollinating our flowers in the process. You just might gain a new appreciation for these charismatic, ecologically vital insects!