A Ghost In The Making: Searching for the Rusty-patched Bumble Bee – Neil Losen & Nate Dappen (2016)

Honeybees are fragile animals that have lost most of the traits that provide survival advantage in their wild counterparts. Public attention was particularly grappled when an experiment in the 1950s aiming to regain lost genes by hybridizing domesticated European honeybees with the wild African ones failed miserably. The experiment that started with good intentions lead to invasion of Africanized honeybees from Brazil to north all the way up to Texas.

There’s clearly a disproportionately large emphasis on honeybees while neglecting wild ones. Natural history photographer Clay Bolt aimed to speak up for the 4,000 species of wild bees native to North America. Along his multi-year effort of story telling he particularly chose to highlight one elusive species: the rusty-patched Bumble Bee which has nearly disappeared in the last 15 years.

Forgotten But Not Gone: The Rusty Patched Bumble Bee from Day's Edge Productions on Vimeo.

The rusty-patched bumble bee (Bombus affinis) is an eastern North American. Workers of this bee have a small rust-colored patch on the middle of their second abdominal segment. This bee was once commonly distributed throughout the east and upper Midwest of the United States, but has declined from an estimated 87% of its historic range in recent years. The rusty-patched bumble bee is an excellent pollinator of wildflowers, cranberries, and other important crops, including plum, apple, alfalfa and onion seed.

Commercial bumble bee rearing may be the greatest threat to native bumble bees. In North America, two bumble bee species have been commercially reared for pollination of greenhouse tomatoes and other crops: B. occidentalis and B. impatiens. Between 1992 and 1994, queens of B. occidentalis and B. impatiens were shipped to European rearing facilities, where colonies were produced then shipped back to the U.S. for commercial pollination. Bumble bee expert Robbin Thorp has hypothesized that these bumble bee colonies acquired a disease. Prime suspect is a virulent strain of the microsporidian Nosema bombi from the European Buff-tailed Bumble Bee (Bombus terrestris) that was in the same rearing facility.

The North American bumble bees would have had no prior resistance to this pathogen. The disease is hypothesized to spread to wild populations of B. occidentalis and B. franklini in the West and B. affinis and B. terricola in the East. In the late 1990’s, biologists began to notice that B. affinis, B. occidentalis, B. terricola, and B. franklini were severely declining.

Traveling from state to state in search of the Rusty-patched, he meets the scientists and conservationists working tirelessly to preserve it. Clay’s journey finally brings him to Wisconsin, where he comes face to face with his fuzzy quarry and discovers an answer to the question that has been nagging him all along: why save a species?

The Effects of Fungicides on Bumble Bee Colonies (HHMI Scientists At Work) from Day's Edge Productions on Vimeo.

 

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