Plight of the bumblebee: Disappearance?
Honey bees aren't the only ones in trouble. The fuzzy American bumblebee, once the most dominant bee species in the Midwest, seems to be disappearing.
Johanna James-Heinz / AP
It's not just honey bees that are in trouble. The fuzzy American bumblebee seems to be disappearing in the Midwest.
Two new studies in Thursday's journal Science conclude that wild bees like the American bumblebee are increasingly important in pollinating flowers and crops that provide us with food. And, at least in the Midwest, they seem to be dwindling in an alarming manner, possibly from disease and parasites.
Wild bees are difficult to track, so scientists have had a hard time knowing what's happening to them. But because of one man in a small town in Illinois in the 1890s, researchers now have a better clue.
Naturalist Charles Robertson went out daily in a horse-drawn buggy and meticulously collected and categorized insects in Carlinville in southern Illinois.
More than a century later, Laura Burkle of Montana State University went back to see what changed. Burkle and her colleagues reported that they could only find half the species of wild bees that Robertson found — 54 of 109 types.
"That's a significant decline. It's a scary decline," Burkle said Thursday.
And what's most noticeable is the near absence of one particular species, the yellow-and-black American bumblebee. There are 4,000 species of wild bees in America and 49 of them are bumblebees. In the Midwest, the most common bee has been Bombus pensylvanicus, known as the American bumblebee. It only stings defensively, experts say.