Vermont’s bumble bee populations declining

Yellow banded bumble bee.  Photo by Sam Droege/USGS.

Yellow banded bumble bee. Photo by Sam Droege/USGS.

Vermont’s bumble bees are in serious peril, according to a new study by the Vermont Center for Ecostudies. Three of the 15 bumble bee species found in Vermont are thought to be extinct and at least one other species is in decline. Bumble bees pollinate crops such as apples, blueberries and tomatoes, making them critical to Vermont’s agricultural economy.

Sara Zahendra, a field biologist with the Vermont Center for Ecostudies, says losing native bumble bees is cause for serious concern.

“There’s a lot that’s bad about losing native bumble bees,” she said. “One of the main things is that they are far and away the best pollinators of tomatoes. Where there aren’t a lot of native bumble bees, people have to hand-pollinate, which is incredibly expensive.”

Native bumble bees are more important than honeybees for crop pollination. Leif Richardson, an entomologist at Dartmouth College, said in a VCE news release that “Wild bees perform the majority of all pollination on Vermont farms, whether or not the managed honeybee is present.”

“As an ecosystem service, pollination is worth millions annually,” Richardson continued. “But we don’t know how the loss of native bee species will affect our food supply or overall environmental health.”

The bee declines cannot be attributed to one single cause. “There are probably a multitude of reasons,” Zahendra said. “All of them put together are causing a severe decline in some species.”

The causes include pesticides, the worst of which, for bees, are a class called neonicotinoids. The most commonly used neonicotinoid is imidacloprid, which is sold at lawn and garden stores.

Pathogens accidentally imported to the U.S. from Europe are also taking their toll. Between 1992 and 1994, commercial beekeepers shipped U.S. queen bumble bees to Europe. There, beekeepers reared colonies and then returned the queens and their colonies to the United States. Bee experts suspect that while in Europe, these bees picked up European pathogens against which our native bees have little resistance.

On top of these threats, changes in land use reduce food sources and nest sites for bumble bees. “The more flowers we cut down, the fewer bumble bees there are to gather pollen and nectar from those flowers,” Zahendra said.

Zahendra thinks what’s needed is for government to better regulate pesticides and oversee the importation of non-native species and pathogens. But she also says everyone can take steps to help bumble bees.

“Little things, like planting flower gardens and not mowing as often. Even just having small patches that don’t get mowed, that’s a small thing that everybody can do,” she said. She also says homeowners can be careful about what they spray on their gardens.

The VCE study was the most extensive bumble bee survey ever conducted in Vermont.

The VCE, based in Norwich, is a nonprofit organization that promotes science-based environmental conservation. Starting in 2012, VCE staff and volunteers gathered roughly 15,000 bumble bee observations from 1,500 sites across Vermont. Previously, university insect collections were the only source of information on bumble bee abundance, and most of those were from the University of Vermont, which meant little was known about bumble bees in most of the state.

The species thought to be extinct in Vermont are the rusty patched bumble bee (Bombus affinis), Ashton cuckoo bumble bee (B. ashtoni), and the American bumble bee (B. pensylvanicus). The yellow-banded bumble bee (B. terricola) is not far behind.

Many of these bees are struggling elsewhere, too. The rusty patched bumble bee, once common throughout the eastern U.S., has declined in nearly 90 percent of its former range since 2003, according to the Xerces Society, a nonprofit organization dedicated to conserving bees, butterflies and other invertebrates. The American and yellow-banded bumble bees are also in decline throughout much of their former ranges in the East and Midwest.

In the Netherlands and Britain, multiple native bee species have gone extinct and now the plants pollinated by those bees are less abundant, according to the Xerces Society.

Zahendra says there are many reasons to love bees, not just because they support our food supply. “They are so fantastic. Every time I learn something about bumble bees, it’s jaw-dropping,” she said. “Plus, they’re cute and fuzzy.”

Audrey Clark

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26 Comments on "Vermont’s bumble bee populations declining"

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Walt Freed
2 years 6 months ago

This is a great story. Just change the word “bumblebees” to “entrepreneurs ” and edit accordingly. Similar message!

Ken Bridges
2 years 6 months ago

I agree great story but what do you mean entrepreneurs?

Paul Lorenzini
2 years 6 months ago

Another state sponsored study that reveals a great threat that no one knew existed except for those that have jobs studying. We probably need some laws to protect bees, and some people to enforce the laws, and we need to confiscate some land and restrict use where the endangered honey bees reside. I am sure the taxpayers will be squeezed somehow from this study. By the way, I had more blueberries and apples on my trees this year then ever before. Is this a threat or a job opportunity?

Karl Griswold
2 years 6 months ago
Let’s all keep a few things in mind: 1. Humankind benefits from the earth’s biodiversity in a staggering number of ways, both seen and unseen. Have you ever taken an aspirin? You can thank the willow tree and some brilliant scientists for that. Want something more relevant to the article above? Do you enjoy tomatoes? As noted by Ms. Zahendra, you can thank bumble bees for that tasty treat. Want another specific example? The antimicrobial peptide melittin, one of the key components of bee venom, is now being studied as a treatment for drug-resistant bacterial infections, viral infections, and even… Read more »
paul lorenzini
2 years 6 months ago
I do understand and appreciate everything you said Karl. My point is that every time there is an environmental study the results are used by the state to take more money and control from the average citizen. I feel like I live in a state of environmental dictatorship. The environmentalists always get what they want based on a study they performed that produced the results needed to get their way. Environmental litigation and the fear mongering that produces it, are a very profitable way of life here, while the people that work to produce for themselves keep getting squeezed by… Read more »
Jeff Noordsy
2 years 6 months ago

So, does this mean that you are a defender of property rights?

Paul Lorenzini
2 years 6 months ago

I just plain hate communism, that’s all. It is a dead end for all except for the communists. And by the way, in what context do you mean property rights? The right to be taxed a at low rate, because you own a quantity of land? I am not a defender of that policy, which is essentially a big tax break for the wealthy.

Jeff Noordsy
2 years 6 months ago

It sounds to me as if you are suggesting that landowners are being forced to accept rules or regulations that cause undue injury or exert unnecessary control of their property.

Karl Griswold
2 years 6 months ago
Paul, one of the greatest things about this country is the opportunity (and perhaps even obligation) that we each have to form our own opinions and disagree with others. I by no means assume you’re ignorant, and hopefully people take the time to get to know me before crowning me an elitist. In discussing differences of opinion, I hope to bring up points that will get the other side thinking, and likewise I aim to keep an open mind myself. While regulations across the US are pretty consistent in the context of widely variable global controls, there are obviously very… Read more »
Paul Lorenzini
2 years 6 months ago
Karl, I do not doubt your wife is a hard worker, or in any way would intentionally skew the results of her work. I am most likely just jealous of her career choice. Chasing bees around all summer and studying them sounds a lot better then working. I do not for 1 second believe that the scientific method is as foolproof or accurate as those within the system promote it to be. Science monitors itself, and with much of the funding coming from public sources, a lot of the motivation for a successful study is money, to perform more studies.… Read more »
Karl Griswold
2 years 6 months ago
We certainly have strong differences of opinion. The scientific method is by no means perfect, and you’re absolutely right that some published studies (and some translated products) are later found to be flawed. But how does humanity find out when a scientific discovery is flawed? Through continued and rigorous application of the scientific method. Other researchers come along and try to reproduce the results and/or build upon them. When those original findings are found to be flawed, that information is passed on to the scientific community and the public. So, while we make mistakes (just like everyone else) we don’t… Read more »
Paul Lorenzini
2 years 6 months ago

My apologies to Karl and Sara.

I am in no way qualified to debate the plight of the bumble bee, or the quality of science.

Thanks for your time.

Paul Lorenzini
2 years 6 months ago

What I didn’t say was that I work on auto’s, and the bumblebee is much safer then the affordable chariot for the average person. And it keeps getting worse. VT is determined to destroy the average man’s ability to transport oneself, in the name of the common good. That scares me.

Karl Griswold
2 years 6 months ago
Paul, No apologizes necessary – debate is the mother’s milk of democracy! I am deeply appreciative of these types of discussions, as they prompt me to consider other perspectives while forcing me to think more deeply about my own positions. You’re right on about the plight of both middle and lower (economic) class Americans (and their compatriots around the world) – the squeeze they’re experiencing is ridiculous. I hope that reasoned discussion and debate between opposing sides will once again become the norm. It seems to me that, in the grand scheme, a middle ground benefiting everyone should be attainable… Read more »
Paul Lorenzini
1 year 7 months ago

You don’t get it Karl.

Kathy Leonard
2 years 6 months ago

One by one we are losing vital pieces of our earth’s fabric, while ONE species runs rampant.

Thank you Sara, VCE and Audrey Clark.

Ken Bridges
2 years 6 months ago

Well said, I could not agree more

Elisabeth Hebert
2 years 6 months ago

Well, as it looks like this rampant species won’t run much longer. The Earth will survive and we will survive only if we finally realize that we are only a part of the web-of-life and not its master. We can eat salad made out of $$bills, if we keep killing the insects that pollinate our food!

Stewart Skrill
2 years 6 months ago

I stopped growing cut flowers destined for the commercial market several years ago as it wasn’t cosr effective for me to bring them to Boston and
get the same price year after year while my expenses kept going up with inflation.
Flowers would be shipped by air to Boston market from all over the world produced at lower costs than I could compete with.
If we lose our bees expect considerable domestic food supply depletion.

Wayne Andrews
2 years 6 months ago

I too had an abundant crop of apples, bluberries , blackberries, beans and black walnuts.

Matt Fisken
2 years 6 months ago

VCE, keep up the good work.

peter harvey
2 years 6 months ago

We too had abundant fruit and vegetable crops this year. BUT we were also puzzled all spring by the scarcity of bees. In spite of our one year good harvest, I believe Mr. Griswold’s view of “The Commons” is right on. Being respectful of the whole community is not communism. But it may be in conflict with the current “ME! First!” religion of capitalism.

2 years 6 months ago
Huh. We saw a lot of bees this year. Bumble, little other kinds & domestic honey bees. Our entire valley is pesticide/herbicide free so that might help. Little to no traffic. Mix of fields and forest. Few people. No cellphone service. Lots of flowers (I plant hundreds of thousands in our pastures, literally). I wonder if they will do a correlational study of places where bee populations are high vs low and what else is in those areas. Sort of like the statistical method for crime mapping. Could be very informative. What we didn’t see was Monarch butter flies. Plenty… Read more »
Sandy Vondrasek
2 years 6 months ago

There was abundant bloom of all kinds this past growing season. Perhaps some of that due to warmer, wetter weather, and more CO2. Also, I believe that stressed plants put more energy into seed/fruit production, as a strategy to keep the species going. In 2012, our ash trees produced an extraordinary number of seeds. This year, not only no seeds, but no fall foliage—only dry brown leaves. A fungus attack, anthracnose. I don’t know how stressed the trees are, but climate change and things like acid rain are changing soil composition.

Roger Hill
2 years 4 months ago

Healthy Planet – Healthy Body…health in particular. Separating this out – environmentalism should be a third rail of politics as science has shown, all forms of politicos need to eat. Mess with the food chain and you bigger problems than communistic illusions.

Paul Lorenzini
1 year 8 months ago

Prove it.

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