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A Ghost in the Making: Photographing the Rusty-patched Bumble Bee

This article is brought to you by the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP). Read our other articles on the National Geographic Voices blog featuring the work of our iLCP Fellow Photographers all around the world.

Text and photos by iLCP Fellow Clay Bolt, and video by iLCP Affiliate Neil Losin
A Rusty-patched Bumble Bee (Bombus affinis) worker forages in a Madison, Wisconsin garden in late summer. Due to declines over the past 15 years this species is now one of the rarest bees in North America. © Clay Bolt | claybolt.com | beautifulbees.org
A Rusty-patched Bumble Bee (Bombus affinis) worker forages in a Madison, Wisconsin garden in late summer. Due to declines over the past 15 years this species is now one of the rarest bees in North America. © Clay Bolt | claybolt.com | beautifulbees.org

Over the past two years I have become increasingly fascinated, okay obsessed, with North America’s native bees. Although I initially began photographing them in my backyard in between assignments it didn’t take long for me to become mesmerized by the lives of these remarkable, often minute creatures. North America has about 4,000 species of native bees. Yet despite all the press about the decline of the honey bee (Apis mellifera) – an exotic species introduced to North America from Europe – none of our native bees are protected under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

My first Rusty-patched Bumble Bee was a preserved museum specimen in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. As I stared at the imperiled insect I couldn't help but wonder if I was looking at a ghost in the making. A specimen of the once abundant Passenger Pigeon lay frozen in time in a nearby cabinet. © Clay Bolt | claybolt.com | beautifulbees.org
My first Rusty-patched Bumble Bee was a preserved museum specimen in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. © Clay Bolt | claybolt.com | beautifulbees.org
Great Smoky Mountains National Park entomologist Becky Nichols examines bumble bee specimens at Twin Creeks Science Center. The Rusty-patch Bumble Bee hasn't been seen in GSMNP since 2001. © Clay Bolt | claybolt.com | beautifulbees.org
Great Smoky Mountains National Park entomologist Becky Nichols examines bumble bee specimens at Twin Creeks Science Center. The Rusty-patch Bumble Bee hasn’t been seen in GSMNP since 2001. © Clay Bolt | claybolt.com | beautifulbees.org

Earlier this year, in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, I saw my first Rusty-patched Bumble Bee (Bombus affinis). It should have been a thrill – affinis is one of the rarest bees in North America. But this particular bee was impaled on a pin, neatly labeled, and stored in a drawer. In an adjacent case was a perfectly preserved Passenger Pigeon. Like the pigeon, the Rusty-patched Bumble Bee once thrived in the Park, but it has gone locally extinct. Unlike the pigeon, there are still some Rusty-patched Bumble Bees left; small populations persist in the Upper Midwest, hundreds of miles to the north. The Rusty-patched Bumble Bee is a beautiful, fat, fuzzy bee that was once widespread in the eastern United States. But in the last 15 years its range has shrunk by 87% and it has become rare in the few areas where it is still found. The bee has already been listed as endangered in Canada, but not in the U.S., where it was once so abundant.

A Rusty-patched Bumble Bee (Bombus affinis) worker forages in a Madison, Wisconsin garden in late summer. Due to declines over the past 15 years this species is now one of the rarest bees in North America. © Clay Bolt | claybolt.com | beautifulbees.org
A Rusty-patched Bumble Bee (Bombus affinis) worker forages in a Madison, Wisconsin garden in late summer. © Clay Bolt | claybolt.com | beautifulbees.org

The Rusty-patched Bumble Bee’s dramatic decline seems to have been greatly influenced by an invasive Eurasian pathogen known as Nosema bombi, which hitched a ride to North America within the guts of bees originating in European bee rearing facilities. In recent years, it has become a common practice to use bumble bees to pollinate greenhouse tomatoes. Inevitably, infected imported bees escape, and when they do they soon cross paths with local wild bees, allowing any parasites to spread rapidly. Other bees within the same subgenus as the Rusty-patched Bumble Bee such as the Pacific Northwest’s Franklin’s Bumble Bee (Bombus franklini) have also seen worrisome levels of decline.

Locations in the Upper Midwest such as Madison, Wisconsin are one of the few remaining strongholds of the threatened Rusty-patched Bumble Bee. © Clay Bolt | claybolt.com | beautifulbees.org
Locations in the Upper Midwest such as Madison, Wisconsin are one of the few remaining strongholds of the threatened Rusty-patched Bumble Bee. © Clay Bolt | claybolt.com | beautifulbees.org

In the spring of 2014 I launched Beautiful Bees: a multi-year project whose mission is to broadly share the stories of overlooked native bee species such as the Rusty-patched Bumble Bee. Project partner The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation has petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (PDF) to list Bombus affinis as an endangered species, and they are taking legal action to ensure that the petition is evaluated quickly. But even with these allies, the bee likely faces a long, uphill battle for protection. In the first 20 years of the ESA, more than three-quarters of all species that went extinct in the United States were unlisted. Some were driven to extinction before they were ever considered for the endangered list.

The Meet Your Neighbours Field-studio technique reveals the beauty of the tragically imperiled Rusty-patched Bumble Bee against a brightly lit, clean white background. © Clay Bolt | claybolt.com | beautifulbees.org
The Meet Your Neighbours Field-studio technique reveals the beauty of the tragically imperiled Rusty-patched Bumble Bee against a brightly lit, clean white background. © Clay Bolt | claybolt.com | beautifulbees.org

I knew that I had to see and photograph an actual living Rusty-patched Bumble Bee during the first year of the project. If I was successful, these images could serve as both a source of inspiration and as a discussion point that could rally support for my mission. With the help of Xerces Society Endangered Species Conservation Biologist Rich Hatfield and Susan Carpenter of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum, I made last minute plans to fly up to Madison this past summer in hopes of finding the rare insect. As luck would have it a good friend, filmmaker Neil Losin of Day’s Edge Productions, was also going to be in town at the same time while working on another project. Neil kindly agreed to join me for the first day of the hunt and film the experience. This short film is the result of that exciting day in the field.

Read more about Clay Bolt’s project on North America’s native bees on the National Geographic Voices blog, at the following links:

Hair Bands and Giant Trousers – A Lesson in How Little I Know About Bees

Over 4000 Reasons to Love and Protect North America’s Native Bees

Comments

  1. Rusty Olson
    United States
    September 12, 9:55 pm

    I have photographed two different rusty patched bumble bees in two different locations this summer without knowing anything about them I feel truly blessed!

  2. Carolyn
    Black Earth, WI
    July 15, 1:52 pm

    I am a Wisconsin resident and visited the UW Arboretum yesterday… and I got to see this very Hydrangea bush, which was pointed out by the Garden curator. It was covered with pollinators, and so fragrant! I didn’t get to see the Rusty Patched, but intend to watch for them when I go back!

  3. Bruce Bourget
    Maine
    April 13, 8:50 pm

    Bees we definitely need, hate to see bees disappearing, I am 65 years old and when I was a kid in the 60’s our farm was full of bees. Hope they all make a Big Come Back.
    There is Always Hope

  4. Erin Seabert
    Ontario
    July 9, 2015, 8:05 am

    This little video is outstanding – thank you! I am a biologist in Ontario and I am trying to improve my ID skills so I can distinguish a RP from other similar species. It is listed as Endangered here and receives protection, but only if we can confirm observations. Does anyone know of resources that will list and describe bumblebee species in Ontario and help me ID the RP? Thanks

  5. Clay Bolt
    December 19, 2014, 1:47 pm

    Thanks for supporting the bees and other native species Roxanne! Keep up the great work!

  6. Roxanne Fox
    South Bossier Parish Louisiana
    December 16, 2014, 8:11 pm

    I stopped mowing my yard years back , I live on a Restore the Wetlands Project. I grow bamboo and have plenty of wisteria and indigenous plants for bumbles. Rusties are my passion and I harbor many. Organic helps too. Deep Well water, no chemicals and lots of sprinklers. These little beauties are water playful
    sprites!It doesn’t take much effort to help a cause..just pick one and DO SOMETHING.

  7. Clay Bolt
    December 16, 2014, 6:08 pm

    Thanks, Rich! Glad that you mentioned that!

  8. Rich
    United States
    December 16, 2014, 5:48 pm

    Please submit sightings of bumble bees from your gardens and wild places to http://www.BumbleBeeWatch.org! You can also view recent sightings of the rusty-patched bumble bee, and many other species from where you live!

  9. Clay Bolt
    December 16, 2014, 5:13 pm

    Hi Jen,

    Thanks for making your garden a haven for bees! If we all did this imagine the difference that could be made. Many thanks for your kind words of support.

    Happy Holidays,
    Clay

  10. Jen
    Upstate, New York
    December 16, 2014, 4:01 pm

    Beautiful! I have been creating a native garden for bees for the past two and a half years. The first year I only had one species of bumble bee. The second year, I had five! I love going out to the garden and taking pictures of all the insects. Even my teenagers have taken an interest in learning about and helping the “bugs”. I wish you much success in your very important endeavor and am looking forward to seeing more of your gorgeous photos!