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Rise in bumblebee population causing buzz in Utah

Rare species in Logan has scientists excited

LOGAN — The season's mild winter and moisture-challenged spring have been lamented by skiers and water managers, but the moderate conditions could mean a boon for the bumblebee, at least in northern Utah.

Jamie Strange, a research entomologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said a three-year pattern showed one species documented at a population of just 129 bees in the western United States, but now dozens have been spotted this spring in Logan alone.

"It's a cool thing to see them here," Jonathan Koch, Strange's research assistant, said Tuesday. "This species you don't find out there anymore. … The fact that we are seeing them in Logan is exciting; maybe there are pockets of them that are doing OK. It allows us to investigate them more."

Such a discovery has researchers like Strange and Koch all abuzz, and gives them plenty to talk about at the state's first "Bumble Bee Workshop" at Utah State University Wednesday.

Scientists, researchers and lay enthusiasts will focus on conservation techniques, threats, and how to coax bumblebees into backyard gardens, flower boxes or orchards.

There's a lot at stake, as pollinators like bumblebees, honeybees or even bats are essential for the vital role they play in agriculture and forestry.

These creatures pollinate more than 150 different kinds of fruits, vegetables and nuts that provide a third of the nation’s food and beverages, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In the United States alone, pollinators enable people to produce about $20 billion worth of products every year and more than 75 percent of flowering plants are animal pollinated.

Strange, a USU adjunct assistant professor in the biology department, has seen the threats up close — from disease to changes in farming to declines in genetic diversity that make certain varieties of bumblebees less able to adapt to a changing environment.

He and other USU scientists collaborated with researchers at the University of Illinois on a three-year, exploratory field trip throughout the United States collecting information from more than 300 sites.

"We surveyed tens of thousands of bumblebees," Strange said.

The research began just as the impacts of Colony Collapse Disorder on the honeybee population were beginning to garner national attention, spurring congressional hearings on what to do to save the honeybee.

At the time, May Berenbaum, the nation's premier advocate and scientific researcher on pollinating insects, testified before a House Subcommittee that honeybees are, in fact, "six-legged livestock that both manufacture agricultural products — honey and wax — and more importantly, contribute agricultural services pollination."

And while that contribution is valued by economists to be in the range of billions of dollars, Berenbaum told lawmakers she'd be hard-pressed to find any other multibillion-dollar agricultural enterprise so "casually monitored."

Research spearheaded by Berenbaum helped drive new initiatives by national officials to better document and protect honeybee populations, and also shed light on the oft-neglected bumblebee, a native pollinator even less understood.

Strange has been studying one form of bee or another for about 20 years, and is especially focused on the bumblebee, which has close to 20 varieties native to Utah.

This year, probably due to a mild winter, appears to be a good year for the bumblebee, with reports flowing in about multiple sightings being documented in Utah, Strange said.

"There's also lots of blooms out there," he said. "It's a pretty amazing year for flowers."

Bumblebees, Strange said, "tend to be pretty mellow little creatures," with behavior he is able to watch play out in 30 to 40 colonies at Utah State's Bee Lab.

Unlike their female counterparts in the honeybee population, bumblebee queens eke out a solitary existence over the winter, taking on sole responsibility for the nest that she has built from the ground up.

By this time, all the workers are dead and she settles in to hibernate. When the first clutch of brood arrive, she'll have "workers" go out and search for food. By summer, the nest will be at its peak size and any of the males that are produced don't hang around to contribute to the nest, but instead buzz off to find a mate.

Female honeybees — the queens — are a murderous bunch, Strange said. They kill the old queen and duke it out with each other to the death to see who takes over the colony. Not so with the docile bumblebee.

"The new queens are not aggressive to each other. They go find a mate and dig a hole in the ground. They don't take over their mother's colony."

Strange said as challenges continue to persist for the honeybee, the agriculture industry is looking to other pollinators like the bumblebee or the alfalfa leafcutter bee — intensively managed for alfalfa pollination in states like California and Washington — so crop producers can hedge their bets.

"That has been one of the big shifts," Strange said. "There's been a greater recognition that other bees besides honeybees can do some of those jobs; let's diversify the portfolio of pollinators that we have in our crops."

Logan's workshop is one of many events being held across the country in conjunction with National Pollinator Week, being held through Sunday to draw attention to the importance of these species and underscore that some of them are struggling.

All sorts of information is being offered, including what pollinator plants to put around homes to attract bumblebees, hummingbirds and more.