Signs of spring in the Northeast include the return of songbirds, flowering plants and sounds of buzzing bees. But this year, one of these biological indicators appears to be missing. As we recognize National Pollinator Week, we hear from Vermont Fish and Wildlife biologist Mark Ferguson about a recent study that has sounded the alarm on the dismal status of bumble bee populations in Vermont, and the larger effect it could have on agriculture and people.
Silence has gradually descended upon the state of Vermont. If you listen closely, you might notice that something is missing from the spring air. That something is the sound of certain bees buzzing. Bees should be eagerly making their way from flower to flower as they seek nectar and pollen, while performing the vital function of pollination. Wild bees are wildflower and agricultural superstars, helping pollinate many crops in Vermont, including blueberries, tomatoes, squash, and one of the state’s most essential commodities, apples.
Since the late 1990’s, wildlife biologists have noticed a decline in the abundance and distribution of bumble bee species worldwide. Yet, scientists had little knowledge of bee distribution, rarity and habitat needs in Vermont. So in 2012 the Vermont Center for Ecostudies (VCE) with support from the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department initiated the Vermont Bumble Bee Survey. The goal: to document past and current populations and distributions of bumble bees and the Eastern carpenter bee across the state.
To fund this massive and critical biological assessment, the VCE looked to partners for assistance. Along with Binnacle Family Foundation and the Riverledge Foundation, the Service’s State Wildlife Grant Program provided the financial backing to complete the project. The State Wildlife Grant Program is administered through the Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration Program, with the intent of benefiting fish and wildlife “species at risk”.
After enlisting and training a corps of “citizen scientists”, the Survey team searched more than 1,500 locations across the state’s 14 counties. From spring 2012 to fall 2014 the group moved from roadsides to mountain meadows, amassing a database that exceeded 10,000 individual encounters with 12 species of bumble bees and the Eastern carpenter bee.
Of the 17 bumble bee species known historically in Vermont, the team was unsuccessful at locating 5 species, the rusty-patched bumble bee, American bumble bee, Ashton’s cuckoo bumble bee, Fernald cuckoo bumble bee and indiscriminate cuckoo bumble bee. One species not know historically in Vermont was observed more recently, the black and gold bumble bee.
After further analysis, the team determined that more than one-quarter of Vermont’s bumble bee species, which are vital crop and wild plant pollinators, have either vanished or are in serious decline. Nine species of bumble bees appear to be of conservation concern. Five of these species seem to have disappeared and others may not be far behind. Yet, at the same time, some common species appear to have increased in abundance and distribution compared to historical data.
So what does all this mean for the future of bumble bees, agriculture and conservation? The Vermont Bumble Bee Survey put bumble bees on the conservation radar screen. Vermont then used Bumble Bee Survey data as justification for including nine bumble bees as Species of Greatest Conservation Need in its newly revised Wildlife Action Plan. Though still in review, the Action Plan is already supporting the development of guidelines for bumble bee habitat improvements for private and public landowners. This is an important first step in developing a comprehensive strategy for bumble bee conservation that could have lasting impacts on not only the state’s conservation success, but also its social and economic future.
Vermont bumble bee species profiles