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!”
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…