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March 04, 2024

45 Minutes

Guests: Rich Hatfield

Tags: bees, community science, staff guests,

Spend time in a garden and you’ll probably hear the buzzing of a bumble bee. These charismatic bees pollinate many of the foods and flowers that we love and, similar to other bees, their populations are in decline. Fortunately, there is a community science program to help us better understand the abundance and distribution of bumble bees across the US.

Guest Information

Rich Hatfield manages all aspects of the Xerces Society’s work on bumble bees. Rich has a master’s degree in conservation biology and direct experience with research on bumble bees and other endangered insect species. Rich also has extensive teaching experience with a focus on conservation biology, ecology, and sustainability.

Show Notes & Links

In this episode, we talk about the amazing life history of bumble bees, from their nesting and overwintering habitat to their ability to buzz pollinate. We also talk about the community science program Bumble Bee Atlas and how to get involved.

Transcript

Matthew: Welcome to Bug Banter with the Xerces Society where we explore the world of invertebrates and how to help these extraordinary animals. If you want to support our work go to xerces.org/give.

Rachel: Hi, I'm Rachel Dunham in Missouri, Montana.

Matthew: And I'm Matthew Shepherd in Portland, Oregon.

Rachel: Spend time in a garden and you’ll probably hear the buzzing of a bumble bee. These charismatic bees pollinate many of the foods and flowers that we love and, similar to other bees, their populations are in decline. Fortunately, there is a community science program to help us better understand the abundance and distribution of bumble bees across the US.

Rachel: To talk more about this we are joined today by Rich Hatfield. Rich is deeply involved with studying and protecting bumble bees in his role as a senior endangered species conservation biologist with the Xerces Society. You may also remember Rich from a previous Bug Banter, when we had a conversation about honey bees.

Rachel: Welcome back, Rich!

Rich: It's great to be back. Thanks for having me.

Matthew: Yeah, of course, it's always a good conversation with you, so everybody appreciates it.

Matthew: Bumble bees are social bees living in a small colony which, we've discovered along with our listeners from talking about other bug banter guests is actually being social is pretty unusual for a bee.

Matthew: Can you explain what social means and how that makes their life cycle different from a solitary bee?

Rich: Yeah, as we all know at this point with, you know, 20,000 species in the world and 5,000 species in North America ish. It's hard to generalize and just say solitary bee and have that sort of be a thing, so before I sort of say how they're different I'm just going to sort of define what a solitary bee is and then we can talk about how they’re different.

Rich: So for the purposes of this conversation, we'll just say that the life cycle of a solitary bee is a bee that lives in a hole all by herself. It's a female bee. She's going out collecting pollen. Filling her nest with pollen and laying her eggs in there. She dies at the end of the year after she's provisioned her nest and then the following year the following spring her offspring will emerge and do the same thing all over again.

Rich: So that female that bee, solitary bee, never meets her offspring, she only sees the egg likely.

Rich: And so that's our definition of a solitary bee then. And so how do most species of bumble bees differ? Yeah, the vast majority of bumble bees are social. There are also some collective parasitic or social parasitic bees, bumble bees that and not necessarily what I'm about to describe, but the social bumble bees, generally speaking are founded by a single individual.

Rich: So, a queen bumble bee emerges in the spring. She has spent the entire winter hibernating, in a shallow hibernacula in the ground somewhere maybe underneath the tree somewhere she emerges in the early spring. And starts flying around and looking for a place to build her nest.

Rich: So, this is sort of the solitary phase or the end of the solitary phase of a bumble bee. And then they find a hole in the ground, like usually, and they will establish their nest in that hole, which is usually a preexisting cavity that was often dug out by a rodent. So, it will have some insulation in there and some structure on which that they can build their nest. And she'll start building waxen pots. And then she'll start provisioning those waxen pots with pollen and nectar that she's collecting from the environment.

Rich: So she makes these sort of cakes. Pollen mixed with nectar and she lays multiple eggs on those cakes and continues to build waxen pots and sort of lays eggs in there. And then she'll sit and actually incubate those eggs for a period of time from egg laying to adult it's about 5 weeks or so roughly.

Rich: And she'll spend the fair bit of that time with that first brew just incubating and keeping them warm. Feeding herself a little bit, but she doesn't leave the nest that often. And then eventually 5 weeks later, those first eggs go through, they hatch and they go through several instars. So, a baby bee is actually a lot like a caterpillar.

Rich: It looks like a worm of sorts. It's a colorless worm. It goes through several instars and then it actually just like a caterpillar it goes through complete metamorphosis and emerges as a winged adult. So, as I said, that's about a 5-week process and the queen has been incubating them. She's staying in there, but then she gets to meet her offspring.

Rich: So, she now has sort of members of her colony that she's interacting with. And that first brood that comes out are her workers. They're usually all female. If things are normal, those are all female and they will just start doing the resource gathering for the queen.

Rich: So, they go out and they gather nectar. They come back to the nest and they deposit the falling nectar in these waxen pots that the queen continues to develop. And that continues for, you know, depending on the species and the environment that can continue for a couple of months.

Rich: Or if we're in an alpine environment, you know, it may be a really relatively short period of time that the colony has throughout to sort of finish their life cycle and things may get accelerated. But after some period of time, 5, 10, 15 weeks or so, the queen will switch and start producing the reproductive members of the colony.

Rich: At that point, she'll, you know, potentially they'll get fed more, more resources, and, those females would develop into queens. And then because of sort of a unique genetic makeup of all members of Hymenoptera, the family, she can sort of decide. I mean, I don't know if that's really the right word to use, but whether to develop a male or a female.

Rich: So she can lay the reproductive females or queens or she can choose to lay an egg that will develop into a male and again choice may not be the right word. I don't know what the right word is, but you can sort of understand what I mean. They can they can decide I guess whether they're laying males or females and then at the very sort of end of the season.

Rich: Insects in the family Hymenoptera exhibits something that we call haplodiploidy or what we call single low size sex determination. And a simple explanation of what happens there is if a female fertilizes an egg with sperm, so she's mated the previous fall, we haven't really gotten there yet, but she's mated with a male the previous fall.

Rich: She has sperm stored inside of her. And if she injects that egg with sperm she's fertilized that egg, that egg will develop into a female. If she does not fertilize that egg and she just lays an egg without inserting sperm into the egg, it's a non-fertilized egg. And that's it.

Rich: It has one copy of the genome and it develops into a male. We believe at least the queen can decide whether or not to fertilize those eggs, and, make some level of choice. And so again, we've had, you know, a large worker core bringing resources in. We're feeding these now reproductive members of the colony.

Rich: So, the new queens are born towards the end of the field season and they'll go out and they will continue to forage for resources, build up their fat reserves. And they will also likely hopefully encounter males from other colonies for which they can mate with. As far as we know it for the most part, they continue to return to the nest and take advantage of the resources and the protection of that nest.

Rich: Until at some point, you know, they get a queue or a signal from the environment that it's time to go hibernate and they go out into the world somewhere separate from their nest. Some species we believe actually overwinter close to the nest. Other ones are likely quite far from the nest.

Rich: Some species may over winter in groups other ones may do so solitary there's a lot that's sort of unknown about this phase of the bumble bee life cycle. But they leave the nest and they, you know, dig that shallow high vernacular and, start that life cycle all over again.

Rich: The males, once they're born, it's believed that they leave the nest and they never really return. So, they spend their nights, you know, sleeping on vegetation. And underside of leaves. You can see this in your garden. It's kind of fun towards the end of summer or early fall. So, the males sort of leave likely dispersed and try to find females, hopefully from other nests to mate with, you know, to keep that genetic diversity in. And, at that point the rest of the colony starts to die off.

Rich: The founder's queen, she's just lives for one year. So, at the end of that year she dies. So, she's interacted with all of her offspring. She's met sort of the next year's reproductive members, but she doesn't fly with them. The following year, she dies as do all of the workers and as do all of the males. The only cast that survives to go the following year are those new queens and they will live for a approximately a year until their new queens from the following year will do the same thing.

Rich: And just to fill in one minor detail, it's believed that most bumble bees just mate with one male. So, they're not meeting with multiple males, although that has been known to happen.

Matthew: Do males mate with more than one female? Do we know?

Rich: Probably. I mean, yes, yes, I'm sure it happens. Absolutely.

Matthew: Yeah, no, I'm just wondering if the female only mates once. I didn't know if that was like the male mated once as well.

Rich: No, it's not like some of our other insect kin that could eat after they mate or anything like that. So they’re still out in the environment and I'm sure, you know, given the opportunity they've made or anything like that.

Matthew: Not sure. Cause I know often, we think social, we think of honey bees. So, you know, from what you were describing, it's like one of the major differences between bumble bees and honey bees, the bumble bee is a one-year colony and the honey bee is perennial. You know, they make the honey to keep going through the winter or whichever season there's no bloom.

Rich: Yeah, that's right. So. honey bees for the most part are perennial. They, as you mentioned, they have a different strategy for surviving the winter, which is enough resources to make it through.

Rich: And the queen and workers, you know, survive that winter. And I believe there's also differentiation sort of in, the terminology that we use to describe the sociality of those two species as well. So, for bumble bees, we use the term primitively eusocial. And for, honey bees and other species like that that have that pretty much, we call them just plain old eusocial.

Rich: And so, there's actually a little bit of morphological differences in the queen as well. And so there's and again, a lot more technical that we probably don't need to get into, but. But yeah, that is the primary difference.

Rachel: So, I know there are exceptions to the social bumble bees and the solitary nesting bees, but in terms of habitat there are a couple of differences between the two that you've mentioned. One is that the queen survive the winter and they have to shelter somewhere and then they're also nesting in very different places than our tunnel nesting bees.

Rachel: So, what are the things? Bumble bees need in terms of habitat with overwintering and with that sort of social nesting, are eusocial? Or I just already forgot the term that you used, I apologize. Yes, thank you. Primitively eusocial.

Rich: Yeah, I mean, it's a great question. Cause I think generally speaking when most people think about pollinator conservation they think about flowers and putting flowers on the ground which is undoubtedly an important thing to do but it may not actually be the ultimate problem or the limiting factor for a lot of our bees. It could be nesting and overwintering.

Rich: And so, we do need to think about what do nesting and overwintering resources look like? And how do we create, protect, conserve them so that our bumble bees can complete their life cycle effectively. And as I mentioned sort of in my description of their life cycle, there's a lot that's unknown here.

Rich: We, we sort of have descriptions of nests. Through time, you know, like going back to the 1800s there's been some research that's been done but on an individual species basis. Like if you asked me, where does this species of bumble bee nest? You know, we maybe have two or three different descriptions of nests for that species.

Rich: So, there's a lot that's really unknown. But generally speaking, what we know about bumble bees is they nest in a couple of different locations. The primary location that they will nest is in an abandoned rodent burrow. So, some hole in the ground and the rodent could be a vole it could be a ground squirrel it could be a mouse it could be a rat you know, it just basically needs to be a hole in the ground that's reasonably sized that has like some insulation or other structure in it that the bumble bee can use.

Rich: You know, as sort of protection and warmth probably for those waxing pots that I was mentioning before. So that's sort of the standard bumble bee nest. We find them in rodent burrows. That's the thing, you know, it's probably the most common. Where those road and burrows are sort of in the world.

Rich: Some of them have been described in open fields like in a meadow. Others have been described sort of relatively deep in the forest and others have been describing more on edge habitats sort of on an edge between a meadow and the forest. So, all different habitat types. So, you know, we think about conserving bumble bee habitat, we can't just be protecting open spaces.

Rich: We also need to think about extending that out into the forest habitats that are adjacent to them. Probably at least a hundred meters or so, is a good sort of rule of thumb of thinking about that if you're a land manager.

Rich: The other places that we've found bumble bee nests is in like rock walls. You know look at little cavities and rock walls those have probably also previously been used by a or some other animal that's you know created some structure and space in there. Some species of bees have been known to nest directly on the surface of the ground. Often underneath like thatched grasses or if you think about sort of a tall bunch grass that sort of comes up and then the leaves sort of start to die out and fall on the ground.

Rich: They create kind of a sheltered area underneath those grasses that is somewhat protected from the elements and somewhat insulated from temperature changes and some bumble bees are known to nest directly under there like in sometimes fairly large nests directly on the surface of the ground.

Rich: The American bumble bee, Bombus pensylvanicus, which is a common species across the US has been has been known to do that as a common species that does nest directly on the surface of the ground. And then there's a few species that also nest above ground in like abandoned bird nests, so, Bombus mixtus, Bombus vagans.

Rich: There's probably some eastern species as well that I'm less familiar with that do this. So those are kind of the major places that bumble bees are nesting. You know, so from a homeowner's perspective, like what can you do to promote nesting bumble bees?

Rich: Probably be messy, right? Like leave brush piles around. Maybe don't clean out that old bird nest and leave it in there to have some structure, you know, and see if they nest the following spring. If they don't, then maybe clean it out for the birds or whatever. So be messy, leave some spaces, compost piles. They've also been found in nest, yeah, like in insulation in walls. Old bedding and couches and you know they're generalists in in some ways.

Rich: The other piece that is really even less known than this is where they overwinter so that that nesting phase is where they spend their social phase. They also have the solitary phase where they're really by themselves and they're overwintering. And we know very little about, where, especially on a species by species basis about where they're doing this.

Rich: Like we sort of know that leaf litter or pine duff is probably important. North facing slopes seem to be important, some mossy areas. But this is a really an area of active research that we're trying to learn more about is where do bumble bees overwinter and how do we help them and so if you're a homeowner you know trying to think about what to do for overwintering bumble bees the best thing that you can do is in your you know, sort of gardens and unkempt areas is leave that leaf litter and kind of duff on the ground.

Rich: You know all the way through spring until you see bumble bees flying in the early spring and then at that point if you want to clean up those leaves or the pine duff that's a good time to do it when you see bumble bee queens out flying they've probably emerged and it’s a good time to clean things up. So again, being messy, particularly through the fall and leaving that in your yard and garden is the best thing that you can do.

Matthew: I was going to say I think my garden will probably, bumble bees will like my garden. It's pretty messy.

Rich: Yeah, mine is too. It's kind of nice when you can be like, I’m not being lazy, I'm conserving insects.

Matthew: Exactly. Yeah. I think most people who see bumble bees in their gardens noticing because of the size and maybe also because of the noise because they are pretty loud. They have a pretty big to them. And you know, you're watching go around the flowers foraging and so on.

Matthew: But I know, bumble bees are one of the bees that have a distinct behavior where they're the kind of the humming and the bumbling buzzing noise is actually really important for, the pollination of certain plants and they've referred to as buzz pollination.

Matthew: Can you tell us a little bit more about that?

Rich: Yeah, it is it is intriguing and it's somewhat unique to bumble bees. There are other large body solitary native bees that can buzz but honeybees either can or don't do this. And so it is important. It's a niche that, you know, a fair number, I think it's something like 8 or 9% of plants on the planet primarily use buzz pollination as their form of reproduction. And so, you know, without bumble bees and some other native bees, those plants probably wouldn't be that as successful reproducing. So, it is important and it's and it also is interesting and fun to watch.

Rich: So, buzz pollination, as I mentioned, it's like 8 or 9% of plants have their anthers, which is the male part of the flower where the pollen is stored inside of it. And their anthers are unique instead of sort of most the other sort of 90% of plants have their pollen sort of on the outside freely available.

Rich: You can go up and touch the flower and get the pollen on your fingers. It's just greens, they're sort of attached and you can you know if your fingers are small enough you could pull the grains off and if you were a bee you know you can just manipulate it with your legs and get it right off of there. And that's, you know, think about a honey bee.

Rich: That's what they're doing is they're sort of pulling that pollen off of the anthers. These 8 or 9% that benefit from buzz pollination. They have what are called, which you can kind of think about as a salt shaker. So, the pollen is kind of inside and then there are pores on the outside of the anthers through which the pollen can escape.

Rich: But it's not freely available. And so, the only way to get that pollen out of those anthers is to shake them. And so that's what that's what bumble bees are doing and other species of bees do this too, as I mentioned.

Rich: When they buzz pollinate, they're going up to those anthers and they're grabbing onto them and they're vibrating their wings to shake the plant. There's some question as to like how important the sound is actually to the buzz pollination or whether it's actually just the shaking and the vibration that's the important piece.

Rich: There's some relatively new evidence that suggests that the sound actually isn't that important in the past I think we've talked a lot about how sort of it has to be some particular frequency or whatever and I think there's some evidence that it's actually not a frequency thing.

Rich: It's more just shaking and the sound is the outcome or is a sort of benefit of that happening. It may not be actually the important piece. So that's sort of an interesting piece and I think something that's been explored by researchers right now as we sort of look into this.

Rich: But yeah, the sort of ultimate take home is in order to get that pollen out of that poricidal anther they have to shake it and so you'll see bumble bees that'll go up and often like curve and they'll put the underside of their bodies sort of on top of those anthers or underneath the anther of the flowers hanging upside down and they vibrate their bodies and you can hear this like you know when a bumble bee flies through your garden you'll hear that sort of bomber sound and then they'll land on the tomato flower or whatever, you know, species of flower that benefits from both bodies and they start buzzing very differently.

Rich: And that's when they're sort of vibrating those wings and shaking that flower and you can literally see sometimes the pollen come. You know, pouring out of those anthers just like you would a salt shaker or you know the salt coming out of this all shaker and this is something you can, if you want to experiment with it, you can do it in your own garden if you grow tomatoes it's a good plant and you can go out and, you know, take a, like an electric toothbrush is a good vibrator that you can use.

Rich: And if you just touch that to the anthers, you can actually see the pollen comes shooting out of those plants. And there are a fair number of commercial plants that do benefit from buzz pollination. Tomatoes I've mentioned is one of them Bell peppers is another eggplant is another. And then some things like, blueberries and cranberries also benefit from. buzz, as well.

Matthew: I'll just say, I was assuming there was some native plants to benefit from buzz pollination because I can't imagine that bumble bees kind of figure this out and went oh, that's a crop plant. I better go and do that.

Rich: Yeah, they definitely are.

Matthew: Yeah, no, I've, encountered bumble bees doing the buzz pollination is a very distinctive sound that they make. Once I've been walking along, I'm like, what's that noise? And then, you've just gone past a bumble bee buzz pollinating and it is pretty cool.

Rich: Yeah, yeah, it's pretty fun. And it's also, it can be helpful too if you're, if you're like a researcher looking for bumble bees. Sometimes, you know, sometimes we use our ears more than we do our eyes and if you're looking at a plant that's sort of diverse and hard to see all the flowers. Sometimes you'll actually hear that behavior before you see the bumble bee and that can be a good cue to stick around here a little bit and look for that animal. So that's helpful too.

Rachel: Well, thank you for explaining all that. I think that gives us a really good overview of bumble bees and a little bit, a little taste of their life history. I think we could talk a lot more about that. But kind of talking about their populations and maybe some of the community science work that you've really been focused on, at Xerces.

Rachel: Before we dive into that, can you tell us how many species of bumble bees there are out there in the world and then maybe just in the in North America and then in the US.

Rich: Yeah, there are probably around 300 species of bumble bees in the world. And I say probably around it's hard to come up with a specific number because there's a lot of research going on. It's the same in every taxonomy.

Rich: There's lumpers and splitters. Some people think species groups are two species or three species, other people think its one species. So, let's just say there's around 300 species of bumble bees in the world and we'll call it good.

Rich: Someone will probably. Yeah, be upset with me for saying that. We'll just say there's 300 species in the world. The sort of epicenter of diversity and where we believe bumble bees sort of evolved from is around the Himalaya where there are probably well over a hundred species of bumble bees.

Rich: So that's kind of the epicenter of bumble bee diversity and then sort of things radiate out from there. Here in North America, we have roughly 50 species of bumble bees. If we include Mexico, maybe we get up to 55 different species of bumble bees.

Rich: In North America, which Mexico is part of North America. So yeah, let's just say there's 55 species of bumble bees in North America. And then if we just look at the US, things probably narrow closer to 50 species. If we were to remove Alaska from that, we may not, we may get down to like, 46 or 45 in the lower 48 states, but since we have Alaska we can get some of those polar species and we'll just say there's 50 species in the US.

Rich: Yeah, that's those are rough numbers. You know, people might slightly disagree with them, but I think we're in the right ballpark.

Matthew: And you know, we keep hearing in the news about bees facing threats, habitat loss, pesticides, diseases and so on. In general, how are bumble bees doing other species that are facing extinction or threats or are they just all doing hunky-dory and fine?

Rich: We probably wouldn't be having this conversation. If they were all just between, unfortunately. I mean, yeah, there's winners and losers, I think is the best way to say it. There are some species that are that are doing just fine. That are potentially even expanding their range and maybe their populations are increasing.

Rich: But there are other species that are facing real threats. The research that we've done over the last decade or so suggest that around a quarter of the bumble bee species in North America are facing some degree of extinction risk. And, in addition to my role at Xerces, I also helped coordinate the, IUCN red list, Bumble Bee Specialist Group. Which is an organization that looks at extinction risk of animals. And obviously the bumble bee specialist group is focused on bumble bees and if we look sort of worldwide and look at what proportion of the species are imperiled, it's also around the quarter.

Rich: You know, sort of worldwide as well as in North America around a quarter of our bumble bees are facing some degree of extinction risk. So here in North America, 50 species, that means we've got twelve or thirteen of them that are, you know, imperiled that in some degree and there's some range of that between sort of like, sort of their populations are trending downwards, but they're still prevalent in most places. They're just a little bit rarer than they used to be.

Rich: And then there's other species that you know, actually may already be extinct and the best example of that is Franklin's bumble bee, which is a species that is native to a very small range in southern Oregon, Northern California. But, you know, once was relatively common or at least findable throughout that region. And it hasn't been seen since 2006.

Rich: It's listed as a federally endangered species. But you know according to some people it very well may be extinct. There's a lot of survey effort still going on for it. It lives in a relatively wild remote area of the country so it very well may still be out there but it hasn't been seen in a long time.

Rich: And then, you know. There's a species in the eastern United States called the rusty-patched bumble bee, Bombus affinis, that has disappeared from 90% of its range or so. And, you know, it's also listed as an endangered species.

Rich: And when I say listed as an endangered species, that means that it's been added to the Endangered Species Act which is a federal law here in the United States. So, it has federal protections. There’re actually regulations in place to help that species recover or those species recover.

Rich: So, it's hard when we talk about these things because we use these terms endangered I think. Sometimes literally and sometimes they actually have definitions. So, when I say it's listed as an endangered species, I mean like in the literal sense that it has regulations attached to it.

Rich: There's several other many of those other 12 or 13 species that I mentioned earlier that are imperiled have been also petitioned for endangered species listing. So many of them are in the process of being assessed by the fish and wildlife service about whether, you know, federal protections are warranted or not.

Rich: And they're sort of moving through that pipeline. Somewhat slowly. But yeah, as I mentioned, there's other species, the other, you know, 30, some odd species, 38 species, 37 species. Most of them are seem to be doing okay from what we can tell. It is worth saying that we don't have the best information on the population status of bumble bees.

Rich: It's not like birds and mammals that we've been studying for, you know, decades that we know exactly where they live. We know relative population numbers. We know the reproductive rates. And we can, you know, really measure these things at a sort of quantitative way.

Rich: The data that we have on bumble bees is better than it is on a lot of other these species, but it's still you know, we're decades behind where we might be with mammals and birds and we're trying to get there with the data that we have on these species so that we can we can truly start measuring them and look at trends over a longer run with more certainty so that we can make more informed conservation decisions with the relatively limited resources that we have to dedicate towards them.

Rachel: Well, that's the perfect segue to my next question is, you know, the one thing that you've done with Xerces, which has been really astounding to see even since I've been It's, just how much it's grown and developing and launching the Bumble Bee Atlas.

Rachel: You started with the Pacific Northwest Bumble Bee Atlas, which is Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. And now, 5 years later, it's in 20 states and covers 53% of the lower 48 of the US which is amazing.

Rachel: Can you tell us about this Atlas project and how is it helping bumble bees who sort of alluded to that already. But yeah, we'd love to hear more about it.

Rich: Yeah, those numbers are, yeah, it's been a really fun, ride, and really exciting not only for me professionally and obviously advancing conservation but seeing the hundreds and thousands of volunteers that have engaged and created sort of a community for bumble bee conservation in North America has just been a really heartening part of my work and thank you for those of you that are listening that have participated and contributed.

Rich: We couldn't be here without your engagement. Probably still themselves. Thankfully they're beloved creatures and we're lucky to have that on our side. So yeah, we launched these Atlas programs about six years ago and the purpose behind launching them was again this lack of data that we really had. I had assessed the extinction risk for North American bumble bees and then in doing so realize how sort of poor the data was.

Rich: And so, I sort of set out to be like, okay, how can we gather more data and have it be more effective for conservation decision making as opposed to just sort of having these random points on a map. And so, you know, the initial thing that we did is we built this community science platform called Bumble Bee Watch, which is where we collect all of our data.

Rich: And we recognize relatively quickly once we launched from Bumble Bee Watch that we were getting a lot of data like tens of thousands of records quickly all over, you know, North America. But when we looked at the spatial distribution of those record, we were just mapping cities and roads.

Rich: And you know, there's a lot of invasive plants in cities and roads and it's biased towards different species groups that maybe thrive in those environments. And so, we sort of schemed about how we can do a better job of collecting data that's better distributed spatially so that we can learn how they're doing in our remote sort of intact areas where maybe no one had looked recently.

Rich: And so we took starting with the Pacific Northwest, we took them and we divided those three states up in the 50 kilometer by 50 kilometer grid cells. And we made those grid sales available for community scientists to adopt them. And then commit to going out into those areas and doing surveys for us.

Rich: The important part about the surveys that folks were doing is not only were they just like reporting they saw, but they were also recording how much effort they were spending into it. So, our surveys are a hectare, which is about 2 and a half acres of habitat.

Rich: They're 45 min long and folks capture every bumble bee that they see. They put it into a plastic or a glass jar. They put that glass jar into a cooler with ice and then they take really detailed photographs of those bees and submit the photographs of the bumble bee along with some habitat data and the effort that they spent looking for those bees. And then all the bees get released back into the environment.

Rich: So it's all non-lethal sampling. And then we have an expert that looks at all the photos and does the verification. So that's sort of a rough image of the survey but the important, just stepping back a little bit the important part about recording effort is then we can not only say where we find species, but we can also say where we didn't find species, right?

Rich: So, the previous data that we have or if you look at sort of iNaturalist or a lot of the other bee data that's out there it's just the presence points on a map, but we don't know how hard someone looked for other species. But, but now we have all these spots on the map where we know people went out. We know that they spent 45 min looking for bees and we know what species they found.

Rich: We also know what species they didn't find. We don't know that that species is absent from that site, but we can at least say someone went and looked, they spent this amount of effort and they didn't find it, which is a lot more information than we have just by getting these presence points and I don't want to get too into the weeds here and we probably could get there quickly so I'll stop and sort of see if you have any follow up questions. But that's the sort of gist of the program and over the last 6 years.

Rich: I think we've had 1,600 people participate in the Pacific Northwest. That have submitted a Bumble bee observation or done a survey for us and we have I think there were something like 520 grid cells and we've surveyed you know, 515 of them or something like that. So, we've really completely covered the Pacific Northwest with survey effort and have a really good picture of how species are doing here.

Rich: And as you say, it has now been expanded into 20 states in the lower 48, mostly focused west of the Mississippi, although we do have a project in the southeastern United States in North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Georgia.

Matthew: Yeah, the follow-up question I was going to ask you is if someone wants to participate, how can they find out more? And also, are there states where you have a particular atlas in a where you really want more or you're launching a new one maybe.

Rich: The best place to learn more is to go to bumblebeeatlas.com, all one word even though it's more than one word, no spaces, bumble bee atlas, no spaces. And from there, you can see the map of the states that we are in. The places that will be brand new in 2024 which is kind of exciting we're sort of launching in your neck of the woods Rachel but in sort of a brand-new region of the country.

Rachel: Yay!

Rachel: So, we'll be in Montana, Colorado. Wyoming, Nevada, and Utah. Those are the 5 new states for 2024. So, we'll definitely be looking for volunteers in those 5 states. The other places that are sort of just getting up and running is the southeastern United States as I just mentioned will be entering its second year. So those will be key states if folks are living in those regions of the country to get engaged as well.

Rich: And yeah, again, the best place is bumblebeeatlas.com to learn more.

Rachel: I'm very excited that it's coming to Montana and the Rockies. I think that's great. And You know, I think the funding that’s coming in just shows that people care about bumble bees and they know that this work is really important. So yeah, congratulations to you and all of your efforts and the rest of the staff that run this program. I think it's just really incredible. It's very heartwarming.

Rich: Yeah, thanks, Rachel. And it's been, you know, not only does it feel like sort of we're collecting this data and yeah, we have data. The data are actually actively being used. Like the data from our Pacific Northwest Atlas project went directly into the species status assessment for Bombus occidentalis, the western bumble bee as they were trying to decide whether that species was warranted for endangered species listing and the type of data that we're collecting are exactly the type of data that they were hoping to have for that process.

Rich: So, I think, you know, multiple different land management agencies or regulatory agencies have recognized the importance of these efforts and just, you know. Obviously, I could go out and do this data at a small scale, but like it's so hard to cover these large regional areas in a relatively short period of time without the help of like hundreds of volunteers and a relatively short period of time without the help of like hundreds of volunteers and so engaging the help of hundreds of volunteers and engaging the public in active conservation projects.

Rich: Is it just a really effective way to educate the people have them engaged in this work and then to have them learn, you know, this new group of animals that also you know, increases our love and appreciation for the natural world. So, it's really, yeah, thank you. It's been a great experience and I feel really lucky to do it every day. So thanks.

Rachel: Well, we're going to end on what is not my favorite question, because I asked you that last time, but I came up with a new one. It's kind of an oddball, but I'm just going to go with it. If you had the choice of being able to communicate with a bee, anyone you want or with your favorite conservationist contemporary or historical, which would you choose and why?

Rachel: And if you choose a bee, which bee and why and then which conservationist would you choose if it was a conservationist?

Rich: Okay. I'll tell you what, it's a hard question. I don't even know how to really approach answering it. Other than to say, I just read this book called An Immense World. This is a very interesting sort of take on how we experience the world and how we sort of force that on other animals.

Rich: And so, what the book really tries to do is it goes through many different species from like well, bumble bees are talked about in there. It talks about dogs. It talks about fish. It talks about sharks. And just how, what senses they have to interact with the world and how different that is from human sort of perception of the world. We're such a visual species. And you know taste and hearing and smell and touch are somewhat important for us but we're really visual and we're sort of we describe the world through our eyes and I think a lot of other animals don't experience the world that way at all.

Rich: And this book really opened my eyes — see there's phrase that we use — like that is so biased in human experience but it really opened my eyes to like, these ideas in thinking. And so I think because of that I think it would be fascinating to be able to speak with a bee and just find out how they sense the world and to learn more about what is important in the world to them and sort of how what human beings are doing are affecting that so that we can be more mindful of our daily activities.

Rich: You know, an example of that is just they were talking about whales and how some of the ways that whales can like sing and communicate on the ocean can travel like literally tens of thousands of kilometers across the ocean and like how boats and sonar and other things are impacting their ability to communicate and you know, that's just scratching the surface in terms of, of our perception.

Rich: But it would be fascinating to talk with a bee and just learn all of that, as well as I could ask them questions like where do you nest, where do you overwinter, tell me more! How do we find the answers to these questions that so many of us are trying to figure out right now.

Rich: And I don't know if I have a particular species of Bee that I, that I would want to talk to. If I could. But I, I do have an affinity for Morrison bumble bee, Bombus morisoni. It lives in sagebrush step country which is a landscape that is near and dear to my heart and it's just a beautiful animal.

Rich: So. I'll pick that one since you forced me to.

Rachel: I love it. I have so much power.

Rachel: Oh, I love that answer. I wish we could talk to them too. We could ask so many great questions. It would save us a lot of time.

Rich: Yeah, right. Yeah, we could probably solve a lot of these complex issues relatively quickly if we could just have those conversations.

Rachel: Definitely. Well, thank you so much, Rich. This is such a fascinating conversation. I feel like I could talk to you for hours about Bumble bees and many other things. So, we'll have to have you back again, but we so much appreciate your time and I'm sure our listeners appreciate it as well and congrats on expanding the Atlas program. That's so exciting. We hope people get involved.

Rich: Yeah, you're welcome. Thanks, Rachel. Thanks, Matthew. It's really a pleasure to talk to you and hopefully your listeners will find it as interesting as you did.

Rachel: Bug Banter is brought to you by the Xerces Society, a donor supported non-profit that works to protect insects and other invertebrates — the life that sustains us.

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