Bumble bee that used to thrive in our region is on the endangered species list

Posted at 10:24 PM, Jul 26, 2017
and last updated 2017-07-26 23:25:18-04

On Towson University’s campus, Associate Professor John LaPolla oversees a massive collection. Nearly 100,000 insect specimens accumulated over the past 90 years. All bugs you see right in your own backyard.

Insects make up 80 percent of all known animal species, yet the miniature creatures are barely counted, monitored or studied.

"For most species we don't have a clear idea of where they occurred and when they occurred there, except in collections like this,” LaPolla said. “So it gives us that sort if historical perspective."

When a collection spans decades, researchers can see changes in the diversity, and spot red flags. That's exactly what happened with the local bumble bees in Towson’s Entomology Collection.

Here in Maryland there are 15 different species buzzing around.

In the early 80's some Towson grad students went out in Baltimore County and captured thousands of them.

"They went and collected sort of every bumble bee they came across as they were doing their survey, and so we have drawers and drawers of some of the same species," said LaPolla.

It's a rare, thorough sample of the fuzzy insects flying around at the time. Every known bumble bee in the state was found.
Twenty-five years later, LaPolla and some students came back to similar locations in the county and again collected thousands of bumble bees.  But this time, there was a sharp drop in the numbers.

"What we found is that about half the species that were collected in 1983-1984 were present," LaPolla said.

He believes the findings point to fewer overall bumble bees flying around the region. However, one of those species has completely vanished from Maryland, Bombus affinis, or the rusty patched bumble bee.

"At this point, we think it's extirpated from the state,” said Sam Droege, head of the Native Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab for the U.S. Geological Survey.

He says the rusty patched bumble bee used to be one of the most common pollinators across 31 states and provinces, but populations have dropped by about 90 percent.

"Despite a lot of work searching for, collecting, doing surveys of bees, we've collected almost a quarter-million bee species, we have not seen a single one after 2002," Droege said.

This March the rusty patched bumble bee was listed as federally endangered, the first bumble bee to be added to the list.

The species is on the verge of collapse, and the massive decline happened right under our noses.

“We were caught completely unawares until they essentially disappeared,” said Droege. “So we had no warning system, and we need that kind of thing so that we can plan ahead. After the train wreck has occurred, you can't do anything about it."

Researchers are working to understand exactly why the buzzing insect is disappearing.  Some worry the fate of the rusty patched bumble bee could signal a bigger issue, and other bees may be next.

"If we started having more and more bee species that became endangered or disappeared from pathogens or whatever else, at some point different sections of the environment are going to collapse," Droege said.

Bumble bees play a vital role in the ecosystem, transferring pollen and seeds to fertilize a majority of native plants and wildflowers, as well as pollenating crops like tomatoes, and berries.

Without the bugs, there would be far reaching consequences.

"If you remove those bees, and because they're so specialized, you're gonna remove the possibility that some of these plants producing seed they will disappear," said Droege.

Without the bees, those plants would die. Causing a ripple effect impacting other insects, birds and animals that depend on the plants, including us.

"The little things out there are really important for how the environment's functioning,” LaPolla said. "But they sort of are the little critters that make the world run in a sense, right"

If you want to help the rusty patched bumble bee and other bees that live in our area, experts recommend growing flowers, trees and shrubs. They also say you should leave some areas of your lawn un-mowed allowing native plants can thrive, and use little or no pesticides.