Honey bees have dominated the news as of late, but I would like to discuss bumble bees, their pollination services and their decline says Univerity of Illinois Horticulture Educator, Kelly Allsup. We have 50 species of bumble bees in North America. They are social like honey bees. There is a queen to lay eggs, and workers to collect pollen and nectar for their honey pot. However, unlike honey bees, only the queen survives the winter. She overwinters in a small crevice in the garden or an old mouse nest, or if she resides in my pollinator hotel, an upside down clay pot filled with straw. They are in fact great pollinators with their "buzz" pollination, vibrating their bodies knocking the pollen onto their hairs and carrying pollen to the next flower. The latest research has shown a rapid decline in some bumble bee species in recent years.
What if we cannot quite quantify the monetary value of this species the way we have with honey bees? Should we as Illinoisans conserve an animal that we don't usually take notice of or may not add perceived value to our everyday lives?
Sydney Cameron, entomologist for the University of Illinois, and her lab is part of a multi-team research effort to understand the causes of decline in several species of North American bumble bees. She attributed the decline of some of our native bumble bees to pesticide use, global warming and the use of imported European bees for greenhouse tomato production. The introduction of European bees in greenhouses increases yields and can be an effective tool for growers. However, they also spread diseases like Nosema to the native bee population.
Their research has revealed that at least four bumble bee species have declined significantly in population and geographic range, and one species may be going extinct. These researchers at the University of Illinois have recently found higher levels of a fungal pathogen and lower levels of genetic diversity among the declining bumble bees. The species headed toward extinction is the rusty-patched bumble bee. Historically found in 25 states, it's estimated to have disappeared from 87 percent of its historic range.
Cameron concludes that bumble bees need flowers from the pea family or perennials like aconitum and campanula, a place to nest and a range that is pesticide free to thrive in Illinois. For more on the rusty patch bumble bee, search YouTube for "A ghost in the making: Searching for the rusty-patched bumble bee," by Clay Bolt.