North state bumblebee goes missing

September 27th, 2010
By: Laura Christman,

Franklin's Bumblebee

Franklin's Bumblebee

Robbin Thorp is on a lonely search for a single bee. He’s looked low and high, hoping to spot Franklin’s bumblebee. The last time he saw one was August 2006 on Mt. Ashland in Oregon. The bee might be extinct. Thorp, a bumblebee authority and emeritus entomology professor at the University of California at Davis, remains hopeful that it isn’t. That’s why he keeps looking.

Franklin’s bumblebee once buzzed around Siskiyou and Trinity counties. Its range stretches about 190 miles north to south and 70 miles east to west, from Southern Oregon into Northern California. That’s the smallest range of any North American bumble bee, but if you happen to be the one looking for a bee, it’s a lot of territory to cover.

About once a month in the summer, Thorp leaves Davis and heads north on a bee hunt. He doesn’t just bumble along. Thorp has a plan. He follows the flowers.

“I walk around and look at the flowers. That is where the bees are foraging,” he told me.

He begins his bee hunts at low elevations and then works his way up as higher-elevation plants bloom later in the summer.

If he were to see a Franklin’s bumble bee, Thorp says he’d know it right away. The bee has a round face and is black with distinctive yellow markings on the head and thorax.

“It is recognizable,” Thorp said. “It has a very different color pattern.”

Thorp has been monitoring the bee since 1998, according to an article written by Kathy Keatley Garvey, communications specialist with the UC Davis entomology department. The first year’s count was 100, the article says. That dropped to three in 2003, one in 2006 and none since.

The situation looks grim. But why should we give a rip? Franklin’s bumblebee isn’t going to create jobs, cure colds or bring peace to the Middle East. It’s just a bee. Whether Thorp finds the bee, our lives will go right along.

That’s a lousy way of looking at it, however. The idea of “looking” is part of the problem. We seem to view nature as something to sit back and watch, like a television show that plays out in front of us. We forget that we’re part of the picture — that we’re all in this together.

“Every species is special and every species is important,” Thorp told me.

Even a little bumblebee.

“If you start removing elements, the systems begin to fall apart,” Thorp said.

Native bumblebees are key pollinators for a diversity of native plants. Wild creatures depend on those plants for food and shelter. There’s been a lot of bad news about bees recently. Pesticides and habitat loss threaten bees. Honeybees have been hit hard by mites and Colony Collapse Disorder.

For those of us who happen to like food, bad things happening to pollinators is not a jolly deal.

Thorp thinks the rapid decline of Franklin’s bumblebee is due to a disease that could have been introduced when native bumblebee colonies were taken to Europe. The bees were reared there and then brought back to the United States (bumblebees are used commercially to pollinate crops).

In June, Thorp and the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to have Franklin’s bumblebee protected as an endangered species. Thorp said it could take a year or longer before a decision is made.

But if the bee hasn’t been seen in four years, isn’t it too late? Perhaps not.

If it is a disease that’s to blame, it’s reasonable to think that some bees weren’t affected or were able to fight it off, Thorp said

“Typically what you would expect, is the disease sweeps through and a few resistant individuals in the population begin to reproduce and recover. That’s the basis for the future,” he explained.

There could be Franklin’s bumblebees out there, but so few that they aren’t being seen. It would take awhile for their numbers to build to the point that they start getting noticed.

So Thorp plans to keep looking. When the flowers unfurl next summer, he’ll be back in pursuit of the missing bumblebee.

“It’s a hunting game, and each year I go with the hope and expectation that they are out there somewhere, but just under the radar,” he said.

Laura Christman’s column runs every other week in the Home and Garden section. Contact her at or 225-8222.