by Justin McKee, Meteorologist/Multimedia Journalist
ROCHESTER, Minn. (KTTC) — Bees are a key part of our ecosystem here in Minnesota. Years ago, one of the easiest ones to find in the Land of 10,000 Lakes would have been the rusty patched bumblebee.
“The rusty patched bumblebee is fairly distinctive. If you look on the abdomen of the bee, there’s a stripe of yellow, and then there’s a stripe of this rusty color, and then there’s another stripe of yellow, and then the rest of the abdomen is black,” said University of Minnesota Extension Educator Elaine Evans.
Suddenly, the rusty patched bumblebee is on the verge of extinction. In the last two decades, it has seen an 88 percent decline in numbers.
“This is a bee that used to be fairly common across much of the eastern United States,” said Evans.
And the problem does not end at this species of bumblebee. There are other species at risk too.
Experts have pinpointed a few different stressors on the population of bumblebees, such as disease, habitat loss, pesticides, and climate change.
“In Minnesota alone, there’s five different species that we have good documentation of populations not being as strong as they used to be,” said Evans.
It’s the middle of February, the ground is still frozen, but work is still being done at the University of Minnesota to save, not only the rusty patched bumblebee, but all bees.
“Pollinators are responsible for about a third of what we eat. In a way, the rusty patched bumblebee could be a canary in a coal mine, showing that we are having problems with our pollinators and even though losing this one might not make the difference for our food, it may mean that continued losses, we’ll get to a point to where it will make a difference for our food,” said Evans.
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is working closely with the University of Minnesota on bee research and the fruits of their labor are already being realized.
“Governor Mark Dayton released an executive order in August of 2016, helping us to protect pollinators in Minnesota. We have a team of state agency experts from 11 agencies, working with the governor’s committee of 15 citizens to think about how to protect pollinators,” said Crystal Boyd, a bee researcher with the Minnesota Biological Survey.
At the national level, steps are also being taken to save the rusty patched bumblebee. It is the first bumblebee designated as an endangered species by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. This status will allow for federal protections and the development of a recovery plan, a solid first step to save the bee.
“The purpose of the Endangered Species Act is not to put species on the list, but to get species off the list. It’s those recovery actions that are so critical to conserving endangered species,” said Minnesota DNR Endangered Species Coordinator Rich Baker.
Every one of us could get involved, doing something to help save the bees.
“Everyone can help to protect pollinators. You can plant habitat with local, native wildflowers, avoid using pesticides and provide nesting habitat for native bees. They like a little bit of scrubby habitat, your yard doesn’t have to be perfect. They do use dandelions. They’ll use some of that standing vegetation if you just leave it through the winter. So everybody can help protect pollinators,” said Boyd.
For our flowers, for our gardens, for our way of life, we’ve just been put on alert.
Another way the public can help is by recording sightings of bumblebees by photograph. You can upload the photos to https://www.bumblebeewatch.org/, where your sighting will be verified by an expert.