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Nature Nut: Search is on for endangered strain of bumblebee

August 12, 2018

It probably was the kind of experience most people wouldn’t volunteer for, especially given the posting that stated, “Volunteers will be exposed to direct sunlight, heat, potential poisonous plants, and potential insect stings.”

But, it sounded like something I might enjoy, and it was near my backwaters cabin, so I signed up for this early June outing.

I arrived at 9 a.m. at the Wabasha Prairie, an 80-acre tract of federal land between Kellogg and Wabasha. There, about another 10 people were donning protective clothing and spraying down before getting directions from Michelle Turton, the Fish and Wildlife Service biologist leading the survey.

In addition to myself and two other volunteers, a handful of F&WS summer interns were also taking part. Our goal was to capture any bumblebees I could find, record info about them and release them. Special interest was in capturing rusty patch bumblebees, the first bumblebee to be given endangered species status a year ago.

As we began walking, I noted the warning about poisonous plants was spot on, as we were going through ground filled with poison ivy. Being very allergic to it, I was glad I didn’t have on my usual hiking attire, shorts and sandals, and made sure to carefully remove pants and boots to wash later.

We split up into two groups, with one covering the east side and the other the west side of the tract. Our group of five started slowly before the first bumblebee was caught by someone else in one of the butterfly nets we had been given.

Careful removal from the net and placement in a jar to be put in an ice cooler slowed the bee down for easier handling and identification later. A quick look revealed it was a brown-belted, not rusty patch variety bee.

I wasn’t seeing any bumblebees until I heard one and tracked its sound to a nearby spiderwort plant. Having caught thousands of monarch butterflies for tagging, nabbing this one was a piece of cake, and I soon followed with two more, putting me in the lead. All were brown-belteds, but it still felt good to get them, especially being the only senior citizen in the group.

We ended the day with 10 total, all large females, for both groups, with no rusty patches, although Michelle recently told me later surveys yielded some rusty patch. The later surveys had the advantage of having many smaller workers and a few males present.

Bumblebees are another animal that is grossly ununderstood and unfairly maligned. One of my most vivid childhood memories was getting stung by a bumblebee, an unusual occurrence unless disturbing their ground nest, which I probably was doing, maybe even intentionally.

Generally a docile insect, I have even pet bumblebees that sat still long enough while collecting flower nectar. Never has this so much as elicited any type of aggressive behavior, with most just moving on.

Bumblesbees are similar to honeybees in that they are social, with well-organized colonies run by a queen and worked by female workers. Their colonies number at most in the hundreds, as compared to thousands for honeybees, and while they do make some honey from nectar for feeding larvae, they do not store it to survive the winter.

Instead, like most other bees, wasps, and hornets, new bumblebee queens survive the winter already fertilized before starting a new hive and colony in the spring. One other difference is that while honeybees can only sting once because the stinger is expelled with such force it pulls out their digestive tract, bumblebees can sting multiple times.

Most people are not aware that bumblebees are important pollinators, including for some important human foods, like tomatoes. Commercial operators even supply bumblebee hives for pollination, just as is done with honeybees.

Recently, while showing a contractor some needed work in my house, a big bumblebee flew in the open door, hit my arm and fell to the floor. The contractor immediately started toward the bee, probably to stomp it, and I immediately said “no, no,” in time to pick the bee up gently with a tissue and let it go outside.

So, next time you think about swatting or stomping any type of bee, give it a quick second thought and make sure killing it is necessary.

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