Will Peterman

Will Peterman

It’s time for a quick public service announcement.

I am completely thrilled that the Western Bumblebee (Bombus occidentalis) has provoked so much interest over the past few months.  I intend to spend the next few months collecting data on as many local populations as possible, so I strongly encourage anyone and everyone to report any workers, and especially any nests, that you see.  The more populations we learn about, the better our chances are of understanding their decline and (I hope) their recovery.

That said, it’s easier to report a sighting of B. occidentalis if you can tell it apart from other bees, so here you go:

How to tell Western Bumblebees apart from Anything Else*

(*) On the West Coast, between San Diego and Vancouver Island

This week’s bug is a stroppy little beast I ran into on a hike outside of Wenatchee last May.  I’ve heard these referred to as bombardier beetles, but they’re not: all the two have in common is the attitude, and the ability to make potential predators who approach from behind wish they had done something else.

This week’s bees are bumblebee queens.  Specifically, they’re some of the queens that have just started to emerge from their winter hibernation.

In temperate latitudes, bumblebee nests go through an annual cycle.  The details vary a bit from place to place and species to species, but this is the general story:

For obvious reasons, I talk about bumblebees a lot.  For rather distressing reasons, the conversation often turns to the mysteries of jet-setting parasites and intercontinental gene flow.  Sometimes it seems like these are forces that operate in the background, either by agricultural mistake or in somebody’s unscreened ballast water, but this week’s bugs (yes, beetles) are reminders that species invasion can take place right out in the open.

This week’s subject is a LBB (Little Black Bee, with apologies to any birders in the audience.)

Once you get used to the idea that not all bees look like honeybees, you will start to see a lot of little black bees.  The next thing you will learn is that they are maddeningly difficult to tell apart.  There are no field guides.  Most of the identification keys presume that you have access to a dead bee and a binocular microscope, and they frequently end with dissected genitalia.  (No joke.)  

I do not own a binocular microscope.  I have no plans to buy one.  (Disclosure: I do have access to a few at the UW, but I rarely use them.)  I spend a lot of time thinking about how to ID bees with a camera and a hand lens, and I have reached the conclusion that there are groups of LBBs that simply cannot be identified to species.

Right now, I’ll settle for ID to genus.

The Question

If I ever write a FAQ section for this site, this will go at the top of the list:

What’s the deal with tomatoes and bumblebees?

Short Answer

Tomatoes are very picky about pollination.  Incomplete pollination leads to low yields and ugly fruit.

Bumblebees are good at pollinating tomatoes.  Honeybees aren’t.

Last week, I went for a bug with looks.  This week, I’m going for drama.  

A couple of years ago, I spent a day on the south slope of the Columbia River Gorge looking for native solitary bees.  It was the first week of April, which is still a chilly time for bees, but I thought I might find some early risers.

After several hours, I had found absolutely nothing except a couple of ants in a glacier lily and one, lonely blow fly in a buttercup.  It was a good day for wildflowers, although it would have been a better day for the wildflowers themselves if there had been pollinators around.

Then, in a patch of Columbia desert parsley, I found this guy.

And now, for something completely different.

Last week, I talked about the bees that got me started on the Western Bumblebee Project.  This week, I’m going to talk about the bee that really got me interested in native pollinators in the first place.

When I was in grad school, I got rather sick for a while and needed to take some time to recuperate.  One thing led to another, and I wound up living in Susan’s basement in Seattle for a few months.  

Now, I’d already started working on bees.  My dissertation (then, as now, incomplete) was on the practical economics of bumblebee foraging.  I knew a little about West Coast bumblebees, and a little more about carpenter bees (which, as solitary foragers, served as foils to the social bumblebees in my dissertation.)  However, I also knew that there were no large carpenter bees in the Pacific Northwest.  

Actually, I would have said that there were no carpenter bees at all, and I would have been wrong.  I digress.

The first few weeks, I spent a lot of time sitting in Susan’s garden, watching bees.  It was a bad year for honeybees, so I only saw a few of those; it was a better year for bumblebees, so I mostly watched them.  (I didn’t see any Western Bumblebees, although I didn’t pay much attention to the omission, not having any particular expectations to compare them to.  They were already dead when I moved to Seattle.)

Then I saw this.

I thought I might as well start off the Bugs of the Week with something pretty.

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

Background

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 Beesearch.org.)

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.

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