Bumblebees, generally speaking, are having a rough time. In a world increasingly dominated by humans, some bumblebee species continue to thrive while many others are seriously struggling. Several are nearing extinction. A recent study involving 67 species of European and North American bumblebees concluded that climate change is having a major impact. Bumblebees do not appear to be migrating north in response to warming climates – a hesitation that could spell disaster.
There are over 250 species of bumblebees worldwide (46 are found in North America north of Mexico). Unlike other bees, whose diversity is greatest in Mediterranean climates, bumblebee diversity is highest in cool, temperate climates and montane regions. The majority of bumblebee species are native to the Northern Hemisphere; a few species are native to South America, and a handful of species from Europe have been introduced to New Zealand and Tasmania. Some species of bumblebees, such as the polar bumble bee (Bombus polaris) and the forest bumble bee (Bombus sylvicola), can be found in extreme cold climates and are among a select group of pollinators found in such areas.
The field guide, Bumble Bees of North America, by Paul Williams, et al. provides this description:
“Bumble bees are very hairy bees with combinations of contrasting bright colors, mostly black and yellow, sometimes with various combinations of red or white. They have two pairs of wings that are usually folded back over the abdomen while they are foraging on flowers, or hooked together as a single unit when in flight. Bumble bees also have slender elbowed antennae, and females of the pollen-collecting species have the hind tibia expanded, slightly concave, and fringed with long hairs to form a pollen basket or corbicula.”
Most bee species are solitary insects; bumblebees, like honeybees, are social insects. Unlike honeybees, bumblebee colonies begin with a new queen each year. New queens, after mating in late summer, overwinter in a protected area and emerge in the spring. They then search for food and a nesting site. Suitable nests include abandoned rodent dens, the bases of bunchgrasses, hollow logs, and human-made structures. They build up a colony of workers which maintain the nest and forage for food and other resources. As the season comes to a close, the queen produces males and new queens. The new queens mate, go into hibernation, and the rest of the bumblebee colony dies off.
Bumblebees face numerous threats, both natural and human-caused. Despite their defensive sting, they are regularly eaten or attacked by various mammals, birds, and invertebrates. They are also host to a variety of pests, parasites, and pathogens, some of which have been introduced or exacerbated by human activities. The commercial bee industry is particularly at fault for the spread of certain maladies. Other major threats include loss of habitat and excessive and/or poorly timed use of insecticides. One looming threat that new research suggests is especially concerning is climate change.
A group of researchers from various institutions looked at the historical ranges of 67 species of bumblebees in Europe and North America over a 110 year period. They “measured differences in species’ northern and southern range limits, the warmest or coolest temperatures occupied, and their mean elevations in three periods relative to a baseline period.” They found that on both continents bumblebees are not tracking climate change by expanding their northern range limits and that their southern range limits are shrinking. They also observed that within the southern range limits, some bumblebee species have retreated to higher elevations. They investigated land use changes and pesticide applications (in the US only) to determine the effect they had on the results. While these things certainly affect populations on an individual level, climate change was determined to be the most important factor that lead to nearly universal range contractions of the bumblebees in this study.
The question then is why are they not tracking changing climates the same way that many other species of plants and animals have already been observed doing? Bumblebees evolved in cooler climates, so shrinking southern range limits is not as surprising as the bumblebees’ delay in moving north. Many factors may be contributing to this phenomenon including lack of specialized habitats beyond their historical ranges, daylength differences, and population dynamics. The researchers call for further investigation in order to better evaluate this observed “range compression.” They also suggest experimenting with assisted migration of certain bumblebee colonies, which in general is a controversial topic among conservation biologists. (Read more about this study here.)
The loss of bumblebees is concerning because they play a prominent role in the various ecosystems in which they live. They are prolific and highly effective pollinators of both agricultural crops and native plants, and they are also a major component in the food web. Some species of plants “prefer” the pollination services of bumblebees, such as those in the family Solanaceae. Many plants in this family benefit greatly from buzz pollination – a process in which a bumblebee (or occasionally bees of other species) grabs hold of the flower and vibrates its body, dislodging the pollen.
Participating in bumblebee conservation is simple. It’s similar to any other kind of pollinator conservation. Just learning about the pollinators in your region and being mindful of them can make a big difference. If you own or rent property and have space for a garden (even if its just a few containters on a patio), choose plants that provide food for bumblebees, including spring and summer bloomers. If you live in North America, this Xerces Society publication and the field guide mentioned above are great resources that can help you determine which plants are best for your region. Additionally, if you are working in your yard and happen upon a hibernating queen or a bumblebee nest, do your best not to disturb it. It may disrupt your gardening plans for a season, but the bumblebee sightings and the pollination service they provide will be worth it.
One family of plants in particular that you should consider representing in your yard is the legume family (Fabaceae). Bumblebees are commonly seen pollinating plants in this family, and because these plants have the ability to convert nitrogen in the air into fertilizer, their pollen is especially rich in protein. In his book, A Sting in the Tale, Dave Goulson describes the relationship between bumblebees and legumes:
“From a bumblebee’s perspective, legumes are among the most vital components of a wildflower meadow. Plants of this family include clovers, trefoils and vetches, as well as garden vegetables such as peas and beans, and they have an unusual trick that allows them to thrive in low-fertility soils. Their roots have nodules, small lumps inside which live Rhizobium, bacteria that can trap nitrogen from the air and turn it into a form usable by plants. … This relationship gave legumes a huge advantage in the days before artificial fertilizers were widely deployed. Ancient hay meadows are full of clovers, trefoils, vetches, meddicks and melilots, able to outcompete grasses because they alone have access to plentiful nutrients. Most of these plants are pollinated by bumblebees.”