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.”

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Audrey Clark

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  • Walt Freed

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

    • Ken Bridges

      I agree great story but what do you mean entrepreneurs?

  • Paul Lorenzini

    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

      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 cancer. Anybody you care about ever suffered from one of those ailments? More importantly, our failure to see how a particular species benefits us as individuals is not evidence of absence. When any species is extincted from the earth, we loose not only the direct benefits of that organism, but also the benefits of organisms whose life cycles are disrupted as a result. (…and all of that simply addresses the issue from a self-centered human perspective – there are other, perhaps even bigger, questions of morality…no?)

      2. Neither your yard, my yard, nor any other individual’s yard is representative of broader geographic areas. Our quality of life is dependent upon what’s happening outside our own properties, our own towns, our own states, and even our own countries.

      3. Observations made in any single year or handful of years (e.g. “I had a bumper crop of blueberries this year”) is not representative of long-term trends. That’s why the study above considered what has been happening to Vermont’s bumble bee populations over the course decades. To our detriment, we all have a tendency to make decisions based on myopic views. You and I (and our fellow citizens) need to step back, forget about what’s going to benefit us most next year, and make more decisions based on what’s going to be most beneficial 10 years down the road, 20 years down the road, or even 75 years down the road, when you and I will likely be long gone but the next generation will be striving for a higher quality of life.

      • paul lorenzini

        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 regulations created by these obscure studies. It seems like a great form of job security to create a disaster and the get paid to study it more. I know, you think I am an ignorant, add whatever elitist term you have for people like me. What I see in this state is a communist form of land ownership, and it makes me sick!

        • Jeff Noordsy

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

          • Paul Lorenzini

            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

            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

          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 real differences that can be felt state to state. Depending on how you look at it, you’re fortunately or unfortunately living in an environmentally conscious state. From where I sit, much of the rest of the country would do well to follow suit. The best current science has convinced me that we’re on an unsustainable trajectory when it comes to inadequate care of the environment. Certainly there are fringe elements that take an extreme approach to environmental activism, but I don’t think many folks would consider Vermont as a whole a fringe element (at least on environmental issues!). Likewise, I don’t think it’s fair to call Vermont (or any meaningful segment of US society) “communist”. That is itself a bit of hyperbolic rhetoric.

          As debate on environmental issues continues, I hope that we can all look objectively at the facts in weighing each others arguments and counter arguments. When it comes to establishing facts, there is no more powerful tool than the scientific method. When done right, science and scientists take an objective approach to studying problems. I happen to know the in-depth details of Ms. Zahendra’s scientific methods as she pursued her study of Vermont bumble bees. She had no agenda other than finding the facts, to the best of her ability. For example, she followed a rigorous and unbiased protocol in mapping areas she surveyed, and was equally rigorous in conducting those surveys in an unbiased fashion. She spent long hours analyzing bees and recording data – she didn’t fabricate a lick of it. That data will be available for others who want to review it. Her careful approach to the bee surveys will now enable people to draw informed and meaningful conclusions. One of those conclusions, as determined by experts (not some random “tree huggers”), is that bumble bees in Vermont are on the decline. That’s not good for humans on a number of levels.

          In the interest of full disclosure, Ms. Zahendra is my wife. That’s how I know for fact that she applied the scientific method rigorously as she did her work on bees this year.


          • Paul Lorenzini

            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.
            Many, many, of these studies cost the taxpayers millions and millions of dollars for results that are clearly less then accurate.
            Just look at the pharmaceutical industry and all the bad drugs they produce with supposedly scientific studies resulting in a declaration of “this is a safe drug”. Come to find out, it wasn’t safe after all, oops. Well lets fund another study to find out what went wrong.
            It seems as though science has a secret method of looking through a microscope and predicting a thousand dooms for us.
            Is 20/20 vision the rule for what science finds in its microscopic view into the future?
            Is 20/40 acceptable?
            It seems like if science can see anything at all, 20/80 then an alarm is raised and bills are sent to the taxpayers.
            I apologize for my cynicism, however as a worker that has to produce concrete results in order to get paid, I have a hard time understanding why high paying, scientific work isn’t held to the same standards.

        • Karl Griswold

          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 shy from admitting our mistakes and moving forcefully to correct them. That said, science is not all making mistakes and making up for them. Every single piece of technology that subsumes our daily lives is, at it’s core, the result of scientific discovery. Consider the wonders of your daily life, and I think one can’t help but be awed by the practical impacts of science. Shoot, I GUARANTEE that the real, tangle product you make everyday with your hard work is enabled through the application of science. Think I’m wrong? Try me and I’ll give you a laundry list of ways that science makes your job possible.

          Regarding hard work: Sara WORKED ~60 hours a week EVERY week this summer (often more). She loves her job, but if you think her work is all fluff, I encourage you to volunteer for a day or two at VCE next summer. Go into the field with her at 8 AM, come home at 6 or 7, and then continue working for a few more hours. After a day in the life, I think you would walk away with a new appreciation of the connection between field biology and hard work.

          Regarding what Sara (or any other field biologist) gets paid for their hard work, it’s a travesty. She makes far less than a grade school teacher, which is nothing…which itself is a heartbreaking reflection of our society’s messed up priorities. (Yes, I think education is CRITICAL, and I believe that every child in the US should have only the BEST education, which they don’t.)

          To summarize:
          1. I don’t think the scientific method is perfect, and the fact that you know that yourself is a great demonstration of it’s ultimate effectiveness.
          2. Whatever your job is, you’re not the only person who works hard. If you knew a reasonable number of scientists, you’d see that most of them work their butts off.
          3. Many scientists, and field biologists in particular, get paid a pittance, and much of that is private donations not tax dollars.
          3. Society owes an unfathomable debt to science and engineering. While constant email access can be a bit much sometimes, try to imagine your life without technology (one important result of science). Scary, right?

          • Paul Lorenzini

            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

            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

      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 if we the people and our elected representatives can argue and listen with equal measures of intensity.
      All the best for the holiday season,

      • Paul Lorenzini

        You don’t get it Karl.

  • Kathy Leonard

    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

      Well said, I could not agree more

  • Elisabeth Hebert

    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

      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

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

  • Matt Fisken

    VCE, keep up the good work.

  • peter harvey

    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.

  • 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 of others, plenty of milkweed but no Monarchs.

  • Sandy Vondrasek

    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

    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

      Prove it.

  • Thank you for sharing this information about the decline of bumblebees. You are right when you say that people here in the US can do a small part and really help slow the decline. In fact, despite owning and operating a pest control company, I typically recommend that people with bumblebees in their yard leave them alone unless they are a major nuisance or someone in the house has allergies. Thank you so much for sharing, I hope everyone takes these startling facts seriously.