A bumble bee coated with pollen hovers over a flower.

A bumble bee coated with pollen hovers over a flower.

Bumble bees are fuzzy and round in shape while honey bees are smaller and narrower.

Bumble bees are fuzzy and round in shape while honey bees are smaller and narrower.

A bumble bee nest appears disorganized.

A bumble bee nest appears disorganized.

During spring, a bumble bee approaches a flower on a blooming cherry tree. (AP)

During spring, a bumble bee approaches a flower on a blooming cherry tree. (AP)

In Maine, a bumble bee gathers nectar on a wildflower. (AP)

In Maine, a bumble bee gathers nectar on a wildflower. (AP)

Bumble Bee Blues

Posted: September 4, 2018

Citizen scientists buzz across the U.S. Pacific Northwest. Citizen scientists are volunteers, not scientists. And these have an important job: finding bumble bees—nearly 30 species of them!

Bumble bees are important pollinators. Without them, many wild and farmed plants can’t grow. These little guys help make the world go ‘round! But some bumble bee species have disappeared from their usual homes. So volunteers in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho travel to 2.5-acre sites. They carry insect nets and plant and bee guides. They capture bees and place them in chilled coolers. Cold bees go into a state of lethargy. The workers photograph the resting bees then release them when they warm up again. An app on their phones sends the info they collect to a database. All this to answer a question: Why are bumble bees vanishing?

What Is a Bumble Bee?

Do you know your bumble bees from your honey bees? In the United States, honey bees are the new kids on the block—at least, they are compared to bumble bees. People brought honey bees from Europe in the 1600s to work on farms pollinating crops. But bumbles are natives. They have lived in North America all along. Bumble bees have rounded, hairy bodies colored in blocks of black and yellow. Honey bees are striped. They have slender bodies and only a little hair. Both species have hairy, flat legs to gather pollen. But for some pollinating jobs, only bumbles will do. Bumbles grab onto an entire flower and shake the pollen loose. They pollinate plants such as cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes, strawberries, blueberries, cane berries, melons, and squash. They are rarer than honey bees. But they work faster. Their large size makes them able to carry more pollen too.

What’s the Trouble with Bumbles?

Bumble bees are old, old neighbors to Americans. But people don’t know much about them—or what harms them. Could the bumble trouble come from pesticides? What about weather patterns? Bees need many different kinds of pollen to thrive. But now major farms grow large amounts of one crop instead of a large variety in smaller amounts. Could that be the problem? All the data the citizen scientists gather will be combined into something called the Pacific Northwest Bumble Bee Atlas. Maybe the big picture will help solve the mystery.