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Celebrating Community Science as the Bumble Bee Atlas Expands to Five New States

By Michelle Tosack on 30. April 2024
Michelle Tosack

Conserving wildlife is a community effort. In fact, a lot of what we have learned about populations of monarch butterflies, fireflies, and bumble bees comes from the Xerces Society’s community science initiatives: everyday people working together to conduct more comprehensive research than would have been possible otherwise. April is a celebration of everyone involved in this type of research (sometimes also called “participatory science” or “citizen science”) and the many discoveries that have been made possible thanks to the public.

Today, we are excited to welcome you to take part in community science, with the expansion of the Bumble Bee Atlas projects to five new states! Launched in 2018, the Bumble Bee Atlas tracks where, and in which habitats, different bumble bees live, so we can monitor potential declines. With five new states joining — Montana, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, and Wyoming — we’ll be filling a key gap in the country that is home to many at-risk species. These new “Mountain States'' programs will help us understand how climate change is impacting this essential group of pollinators. Will you join us? 


A bumble bee on a flower in the foreground, with a mountain range in the background, and a clear mountain lake below. The mountains are only lightly covered with sparse plants, hinting at the high elevation.
Even at the high elevations of Wyoming’s Wind River mountain range, bumble bees are a-buzz pollinating the landscape’s wildflowers. (Photo: Molly Martin / Xerces Society).


Bumble bees are amazing pollinators but many are at risk

From the rolling sagebrush plains and high deserts to the glaciated peaks, the five new Bumble Bee Atlas states are home to a remarkable diversity of flowers and insect visitors. Due to their unique physiology that allows bumble bees to fly in conditions when other bees stay home, they are essential pollinators. Unlike other bees, they can warm themselves by vibrating their wing muscles, shivering to a point that enables them to take flight. They also have large, fuzzy bodies and can fly long distances, making them one of the major groups of pollinators in cold weather climates. Across rolling grasslands and the sagebrush sea up to alpine meadows, bumble bees are hard at work providing essential pollination services to maintain the biodiversity of wild plants. 

In North America, up to 25% of bumble bees are experiencing dramatic population declines. Across Montana, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, and Wyoming, there are at least six bumble bee species of conservation concern! These include the western bumble bee (Bombus occidentalis), the suckley cuckoo bumble bee (B. suckleyi), the American bumble bee (B. pensylvanicus), the variable cuckoo bumble bee (B. variabilis), Morrison’s bumble bee (B. morrisoni), and the southern plains bumble bee (B. fraternus). Due to the wild and remote nature of this region, there is a lot we don’t know yet about the bumble bee populations living there, and how they might fare in the future. 


The western bumble bee (Bombus occidentalis) is threatened by habitat loss and introduced diseases. (Photo: Tom Kogut)


Help protect bumble bees with Bumble Bee Atlas

In order to provide bumble bees what they need to recover and thrive, we need to better understand which habitats they live in. That means an in-depth exploration, looking for bees across many different parts of the landscape. Scientists can’t be everywhere at once, which is why the Bumble Bee Atlas — and you — are so important. As you go about your summer adventures, why not bring an insect net and spend some time chasing down bumble bees? By doing so, you are contributing to bumble bee conservation, while exploring the scenic beauty of the places you love, and contributing to information that will help protect them for the next generation. 

Several young adults, with backpacks and butterfly nets, walk up a steep hill covered in native grasses and flowers. The clouds are visible beyond the crest of the hill, suggesting that the hill is at high elevation.
Joining a Bumble Bee Atlas survey group is an opportunity to learn more about wildlife and meet a community of other nature enthusiasts. (Photo: Britton Bailey).


Everyone can take part, whether you’re a pollinator enthusiast, avid hiker, or just starting to be curious about bumble bees. Every Bumble Bee Atlas volunteer attends educational training (virtual or in-person) to equip them with the skills and knowledge to participate. Each Atlas region is split up into small areas that volunteers can “adopt” as their responsibility. Throughout the summer volunteers conduct two, 45-minute surveys within that area. The surveys include catching bumblebees, photographing them, and releasing them unharmed. There is also another brief survey to learn about the habitat and floral resources in the area.

In collaboration with our partners, we are eager to engage everyone in the process of conserving bumble bees.The Bumble Bee Atlas in Montana has partnered with the U.S. Forest Service and Missoula County Department of Ecology. In Colorado, Utah, Nevada, and Wyoming, we are partnered with the Bureau of Land Management. The missing partner is you — join us! The Mountain States Bumble Bee Atlas kicks off in June. 

Learn more and get involved with the Bumble Bee Atlas



Michelle leads the Montana Bumble Bee Atlas to engage community scientists in conserving bumble bees. Michelle obtained a masters in biological sciences from Simon Fraser University, where she researched pollinator biodiversity and the impacts of farming practices on bumble bees. She has led the strategy and implementation of numerous community science programs across North America to advance conservation efforts. Michelle enjoys exploring the natural beauty of the Rocky Mountains in many ways, especially ridge-top scrambling, mountain running, and wild ice skating.

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