This past week, we have had several conversations about bees and how to deal with them. It was interesting to learn through these conversations people’s perspectives of these flying insects that some consider a pest, while others recognize their value as pollinators.
During one of the conversations, it was stated that bumblebees are now listed as an endangered species. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website, the rusty patched bumblebee made the list in 2017, as there are only scattered populations of these bumblebees remaining in 13 Midwest states. These bumblebees were once common and widespread, ranging from Connecticut to South Dakota.
Bumblebees, including the rusty patch bumblebee, pollinate plants that need insect pollination to produce their fruit, which include tomatoes, peppers and even cranberries. I cannot imagine what a summer picnic would be like without fresh ripe tomatoes and peppers, or Thanksgiving without cranberry sauce!
Since the rusty patch bumblebee is no longer in New York, I wondered what might be happening to our other bee populations. The Pollinator Network at Cornell University estimates there are a total of 416 bee species in the state. The majority of the bees are classified as digger bees because they dig a hole in the ground for their nest and live alone. If you think about honeybees, they produce a hive and live together in a social order.
According to the Xerces Society, a nonprofit organization focused on conserving beneficial insects, some of the 40 species of bumblebees in North America have experienced rapid and dramatic decline. Their website further states that 28 percent of all North American bumblebee species are facing some degree of extinction risk. Of those species endangered, some are getting more attention for conservation than others.
Bumblebees face many threats, including loss of habitat, diseases, pesticide use and climate change. The loss of habitat is considered one of the major factors affecting all pollinators. According to the Great Pollinator Project (greatpollinatorproject.org/conservation/major-threats-to-pollinators), as land is developed, the loss of sites for overwintering, foraging for pollen and nectar, or nesting can be detrimental, even when pollinator gardens are provided. Widespread pesticide use not only affects the bumblebees themselves, but can remove or reduce the number of flowering plants some may use as a food source, and further degrade their habitat.
Interestingly, bumblebees are raised commercially for greenhouse production of fruit and vegetables, and research is now finding that these commercially raised bumblebees can transmit disease to wild populations.
At our office on Grant Avenue in Auburn, we have several shrubs that are currently flowering and being heavily worked by bumblebees. It is buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis), a native shrub that easily adapts to various soil types and grows from Florida into Nova Scotia. According to the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service fact sheet on common buttonbush, it is suitable for wetland restoration, created wetlands and riparian zones. In addition to the benefits to bumblebees and other pollinators, the seeds produced in the fall are eaten by waterfowl and the twigs are eaten by three species of mammals.
There are numerous resources available online for conserving bumblebees. In fact, there is a website for citizen scientists across North American to record sightings of bumblebees at bumblebeewatch.org. Simply snapping a picture and submitting it online will help the Xerces Society to track bumblebee populations across North America. There are also resources to learn how landowners with natural areas interested in managing them for the benefit of bumble bees.
Take some time and consider your potential impact on the environment and pollinators, including bumblebees, before you use pesticides to control pests. Our master gardener volunteers are available from 10 a.m. to noon Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays to answer questions by phone at (315) 255-1183 ext. 228 through the end of September.