It's springtime and that means the pollinators are coming out to play. You’ve probably heard about how without pollinators, we wouldn’t have some of our favorite healthy snacks like apples, mangoes, avocados, and most berries. However, did you know that most reports focus on honeybees, which are non-native? Today we’d like to focus on North America’s native bumblebees.
The bumblebee gets a headstart in early spring; the fertilized queen, covered in thick hairs, can rev up her wing muscles to raise her internal temperature up to 86ºF. This allows her to fly in cold weather and visit the spring flowers before other pollinators. Naturally, bumblebee colonies don't survive the winter; only hibernating queens survive. It's up to the queen bumblebee to start an entire colony in spring. So if you see a bumblebee in April, it's a queen bee! BBC Earth's video below shows the queen's morning routine after a winter-long sleep.
There are nearly 50 native species of bumblebee in North America. Research shows that at least 4 species of formerly plentiful North American bumblebees have experienced a massive decline over the past decade.
Why should we care?
Bumblebees are responsible for:
- Reproduction of 90+ fruits and veggies
- Reproduction of countless native wildflowers
- Feeding wildlife from birds to bears
Bumblebees are at times, more effective at pollinating than honeybees due to their ability to “buzz pollinate” (AKA sonication), which is when bees dislodge pollen by grabbing onto flowers and rapidly moving their flight muscles. Honeybees cannot perform buzz pollination! ~9% of the world’s flowers are pollinated through this method. Crops such as tomatoes, blueberries, and cranberries rely on buzz pollination to set fruit. The video from the Smithsonian Channel below shows slow-motion footage of buzz pollination.
The most common reasons for the decline of native bumblebees are habitat loss, pesticide use, climate change, and the introduction of non-native bumblebee diseases.
So what can we do to combat the decline of native bees?
- Avoid pesticides
- Plant diverse, native plants to provide bumblebees with pollen and nectar
Here is a pollinator-friendly plant list of perennials and herbs to add to your garden
- Go natural; protect and preserved unmown, brushy areas and welcome bumblebee nests should you find them
- Reduce soil tillage and mowing where bumblebees might nest
- Learn how to identify bumblebees. You can download an identification guide here
- Participate in citizen science bumblebee research
- Support conservation organizations working to protect bumblebees
Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation is an international nonprofit organization that protects the natural world through the conservation of invertebrates and their habitats. Their name is derived from the now extinct Xerces Blue butterfly (Glaucopsyche xerces), the first butterfly known to go extinct in North America as a result of human activities.
The text in this blog has been adapted from The Xerces Society factsheet here.