Bee of the Week: Western Bumblebee

The choice of the initial Bee of the Week was easy.  These are the pictures that started it all, or at least that set on its current course.  This is as good a place as any to tell that story.


I have been interested in native bees and pollinator conservation for years.  I spent most of the past decade or two as a freelance writer and developer (mostly for one or another of the local software behemoths), but between projects, I was learning to find, identify, and photograph pollinators in the lower Cascades.

After one too many projects burned to its conclusion in a haze of sleepless nights, I needed to take a break and spend some days working with bees for awhile.  

I started trying out new projects that might turn out to be interesting and useful.  A few of them – a better field guide for native pollinators, a guide for native bees in apple country, a camera-ready, nonlethal insect collection jar – are still underway, if on the back burner for awhile.  Some others were entertaining but impractical, and probably best forgotten.

Rumors of the Lost

The most interesting project was a long shot.  I knew about the collapse of the Western Bumblebee, not just by reputation, but from personal experience: in fifteen years of walking around Puget Sound looking for bees, I’d never laid eyes on one.  I also knew that they weren’t actually extinct.  There were small populations holding out somewhere  maybe in the mountains  but they were still vulnerable, unable to survive in high traffic areas.  One of the continent’s great pollinators had literally been driven to the edges of the earth.  I thought that that was a story that needed to be told, and some friends and I started kicking around the idea of making a documentary film.  (Among other things, we needed a name for the project.  That’s when I registered

The general idea was that we would travel to places where the Western Bumblebee had once lived, film what was there now, and so tell the story of what it had been and where it had gone.  The final act would have us travel to a distant site to film the last bees in action.  Finding that site would be a challenge, we thought, and the search itself would carry the film.

It didn’t work out like that.  In the summer of 2013, word got around that a gardener north of Seattle had seen a Western Bumblebee foraging on milkweed the previous year.  That didn’t necessarily mean anything: pioneers had blown down from the remnant populations before, but had quickly succumbed to whatever had killed their relatives in the first place.  They had never established a nest, and certainly never survived the winter.

Still, the news was interesting, and I decided to go out and see what I could find. At the time, I didn’t know anything about the garden in question except that it was “north of Seattle”.  That’s not quite as bad as it sounds: most of the suburbs north of Seattle have well known names, or are closer to those names than they are to Seattle.  (If the sighting had been in Everett, the rumor mill would probably say so.)  Still, there were about twenty square miles “north of Seattle,” and bees are small.

In the end, I spent about six hours one Saturday night on Google Earth, mapping out sites that looked like good bumblebee habitat.  The next morning, Susan and I went out to look for bees.



The third site was beautiful… if you’re a bee.  It’s an old patch of parkland, falling off the edge of a power line right of way, and the county parks department obviously has better places to spend their time.  It’s armpit deep in deer vetch and an array of invasive plants, and surrounded by blackberry hedge.  Everything was in bloom.

The diversity of bees there was outstanding.  In ten minutes, I found honeybees, at least three species of bumblebee, two kinds of sweat bee, a leafcutter bee, and a mining bee, plus a couple of cuckoo bees (nest parasites).  There was also a good range of flies and a few wasps.

I did not see any Western bumblebees.

After about half an hour, I got a call from Susan to come check something out.  We were working our way around the park in opposite directions, and she’d found something interesting: a black bee with a white band.

Well, that was interesting.  The only bee native to the area with true white on a dark body is the Western Bumblebee.

This one turned out to be something else: a dead Yellow-faced Bumblebee, killed by a spider, whose natural yellow thoracic band had somehow bleached to pure white in the sun.  I’ve never seen anything like it, before or since, but it wasn’t what we were looking for.

I had barely had time to get over my disappointment and start looking around when Susan shrieked “Oxy!”

Blurry photographs


There it was.  Bombus occidentalis.  The Western Bumblebee.  Probably the most interesting insect around the Puget Sound, and it was twenty feet up a giant slope of blackberry.  Those are not good conditions to photograph something smaller than my thumb, even if it were sitting still.  (It wasn’t.)

(Actually, it’s not that bad.  The color contrast between the front and rear bands is unmistakable, and bleached corpses notwithstanding, there’s nothing else around Seattle that looks like that.  We knew we’d found our bee.)


So, that was that.  I had proof that the Western Bumblebee was still present “north of Seattle.”  Barring some impressive coincidences, that meant that there was a local population that had survived the winter.

That was news worth sharing, so I sent in a carefully written report to the Xerces Society.  I also sent a rather less formal email around to some of my friends at UW, in which I may have mentioned Bigfoot.  (If you want a culprit for why Bigfoot keeps coming up in these conversations, and why the whole Western Bumblebee project is still referred to in some UW circles as Project Megapoda, that email gets the blame.)

Still, my ego as a photographer felt a bit wounded by the cryptozoological vibe of our evidence, if not by the overall conclusion.  Two days later I returned to the site.  The bees were more cooperative.



I returned to the site several more times over the next few weeks, sometimes with people from UW, sometimes alone.  We were able to confirm that there was at least one nest with multiple foragers, although the nest itself was on private property and inaccessible.  (I should note that the initial discovery site also turned out to be on private property, but the landowners there were very cooperative, going so far as to reschedule a substantial maintenance project in order to avoid disrupting an area where the bees were feeding.)

On the largest UW trip, we were joined by Sandi Doughton, a reporter from the Seattle Times.  She gave us an excellent write up. NPR picked up the story, then Reuters, and eventually the whole thing went much farther than I ever expected it would.  The second photograph ran with the original Seattle Times article.  I’d like to think that it helped the story spread, but that may be optimism on my part.  We’ll see…


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