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Dumbledores and Bumblebees

It may interest you to know that one of this generation’s most iconic characters, Dumbledore, takes his name from an Old English term for the bumblebee. It’s easy to see why J.K. Rowling could be so inspired, bumblebees never seem incessantly busy like their honey-crazed counterparts and they tend to “bumble” along alighting among  flowers on warm summer days, unfazed by the world  around them, while humming to themselves. It’s probably due to this relaxed attitude and the simple joy of saying the word “bumble” that these charming creatures have secured a place in our hearts as some of the world’s most loveable and interesting insects. They’re easy to watch, we get to look at flowers while watching them, and this adventure requires spending some quality time outside, basking in the summer sun. What’s not to love about a dumbledore?

Bombus-impatiens_Mary Keim_CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
The Common Eastern Bumblebee (Bombus impatiens) has been domesticated and mass-produced as a crop pollinator, particularly for large-scale tomato and sweet pepper greenhouses, since the early 1990s. It is one of the most widespread and abundant species in the Eastern US and adjacent Canada. It is a generalist, adapting well to a variety of habitats, nectar sources, and climates. Photo courtesy of Mary Keim.

Perhaps it’s because bumblebees feel so common that more has not been done to track their conservation status over the past 50 years of the IUCN Red List. A decline in common species is one of the silent challenges facing nature conservation simply because detailed records are often not kept for species that have historically been everywhere. Thankfully, members of IUCN’s Bumblebee Specialist Group have been keeping track and compiling preliminary assessments of bumblebees for some time now. What these conservation heroes have discovered is that, in fact, some species are in steep decline. There are a whole host of reasons for this, but  a combination of disease, agricultural intensification, urban development, pesticide use, competition with non-native bees, and climate change are the main reasons for their decline.

It is often the case in species conservation that it feels like we can’t really do much about the global decline in biodiversity. Many of our favorite creatures, plants, mushrooms, lichens and other forms of life exist in far away countries and there is not really a lot that each of us can physically do to support their conservation. Bumblebees are a wonderful exception to this common reality of nature conservation and thanks to a handful of amazing and dedicated people, some bumblebee species are actually doing quite well – assessed as Least Concern by The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. But, this doesn’t mean they deserve our attention less than their threatened cousins.

Many bumblebees make their living in landscapes that people find desirable – open fields with lots of flowers. The combination of our affinity for bumblebee habitat, their undeniable charm, and the relative ease and accessibility of a menu of easy conservation actions makes a strong case for invoking wide-scale personal dedication and support for the assessment and conservation of bumblebees.

Bombus-auricomus_sankax_CC-BY-NC-2.0
The Black and Gold Bumblebee (B. auricomus) is widespread in North America, and thriving. It is a generalist feeder, but has a particularly long tongue, often preferring plants such as penstemon and beebalm that have longer corolla tubes. This bumblebee emerges late in the season, and nests above ground in open grassland and old-field habitats. Photo courtesy of Sankax, https://www.flickr.com/photos/sankax/

There are a relatively small number of bumblebee species (about 250) and assessments in Europe and North America show that about ¼ of the assessed species are threatened with extinction. That leaves about 200 species that still need to be assessed by the IUCN Red List. Assessments completed in the U.S. have influenced more than half of U.S. states to identify at least one bumblebee species as a ‘species of greatest conservation need’ in their revised State Wildlife Action Plans, meaning that conservation plans will be developed and funding made available for research and restoration projects benefiting at-risk bumblebees in the majority of U.S. states.

Despite this, there are some hurdles to effective bumblebee conservation. It is helpful to keep in mind that bumblebees are not one species, but many species that share a similar life history. This means that although they’ll have their own conservation requirements they all need three basic types of habitat in order to survive: 1) nesting sites 2) areas to forage for pollen and nectar, and 3) places for queens to overwinter since the queens are the only members to survive the season. Following these basics, all bumblebee species differ in terms of their geographic range, when queens emerge in springtime, where they like to nest, and which flowers they prefer.

Bombus-ternarius_Kent McFarland_CC BY-NC 2.0
You can easily identify the Tricolored Bumblebee (B. ternarius) by its wide orange belt. The species is known to nest underground close to or within woodlands and wetlands and is thriving across its North American range. Photo courtesy of Kent McFarland.

Citizen science is playing a major role in bumblebee conservation. For example, public surveys have helped compile the world’s most comprehensive study on bumblebee nesting habits in the UK. In the US, if you find a bumblebee nest, keep calm and carry on—then report it here. To preserve sites for bumblebee nesting and overwintering, remember that any activities that disturb the soil surface or subsurface – tilling, burning, mowing, planting, grazing, etc. – also may disturb bumblebees. You can preserve natural habitats by limiting these disturbances, and provide artificial habitats by re-purposing bird boxes or stacking small piles of stones.

The good news is that there are lots of resources available to help you look out for the bumblebee species living in your neighborhood.

Bombus-vosnesenskii_Mathesont_CC BY-NC 2.0
If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, you can be confident that most of the fuzzy visitors to your community garden are Yellow-faced Bumblebees (B. vosnesenskii). This species actually seems to have benefitted from urbanization and agricultural development within its rather modest West-Coast range. For unexplained reasons it is more tolerant of these landscapes than other bumblebees, and is increasing in relative abundance. Photo courtesy of Mathesont.

Planting certain native flowers in your garden will also help bumblebees. They prefer flowers that are purple, blue, or yellow, but won’t forage on red flowers (unless there are UV cues on the petals). For help planting a garden suited to bumblebee species in your area, please consult this guide, created by the Xerces Society and the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. If you plan to obtain plants from a garden center, please also keep in mind that nursery seeds and plants may contain harmful neonicotinoid pesticides, do your best to avoid these chemicals using your own inquisitiveness. You can also help bumblebees by supporting local and organic agriculture and small-scale apiaries that often have a soft spot for bumblebees too.

Bombus-griseocollis_Tom Potterfield_CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
If you live in New York City, it’s possible you have seen a Brown-belted Bumblebee (B. griseocollis) visiting your window planter or bumbling past your springtime picnic on Governors Island. This bumblebee is doing well and inhabits most of the lower 48. By mid-summer, drones of this species are on the hunt for mates, an activity they prefer to do from high perches; they have even been observed buzzing around near the top of the Empire State Building. Photo courtesy of Tom Potterfield.

It is comforting that conserving bumblebees is something we can all be informed and inspired to take part in. As a wise wizard once said, “Words are, in my not-so-humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic – capable of both inflicting injury, and remedying it”. Supporting global bumblebee conservation is a great way to remember and honor that magic and the not-so-humble, Dumbledore.

by

Craig Beatty and Katherine Blackwood, IUCN