In the late 1990s, the most important bee that Americans never heard of almost died out. Last year, we found some in a completely unexpected place. They may be coming back, and we may be able to help – but we need to move quickly.
Help us find out.
Everyone knows that the bees are hurting. The news is full of colony collapse, empty hives, and the crazy prices that farmers have to pay to pollinate their crops.
Fewer people know that, when it comes to pollination, honeybees are not the only game in town. In fact, they are an alien species in North America: they arrived with European settlers. Before that, the Americas and the fruits, berries, and vegetables that grew here – tomatoes, peppers, blueberries, squash – did just fine with the local talent. Many of them actually do better when they’re visited by native bees.
There are several thousand species of bee in North America. Some of them are hurting, too. Some of them are doing fine. With few exceptions, no one really knows which are which.
In 1990, the Western Bumblebee (Bombus occidentalis) was doing fine. It was widespread and abundant, and was probably the most important native pollinator west of the Rockies. There was even a serious effort to domesticate it, to keep colonies alive year-round in greenhouses, to provide fresh heirloom tomatoes in February.
Ten years later, most of them were dead.
My name is Will Peterman. I’m a photographer, writer, engineer, and native bee nerd, and when I came to the Pacific Northwest, the biologists I met talked about the Western Bumblebee in tones I had previously heard in conversations about Bigfoot. Most of them had never seen one. When a corpse turned up in a suburb near the airport, it was big news. We found one!
It was just the one, though. Subsequent searches turned up nothing; additional traps stayed empty. No one saw one alive – until last year.
I am also the guy who found the first lowland population of Western Bumblebees since the collapse. I have been studying them ever since, along with researchers from the University of Washington, the US Department of Agriculture, and the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation. As far as we can tell, they’re doing fine, and that means that something has changed. These bees are (probably) different, somehow, from the ones that are hanging on in the remote corners of the West, and if we move quickly – if we get cell samples from the new bees and the old ones, before the new population has time to spread, or to die – there’s an excellent chance that we’ll be able to figure out what the difference is.
If we can do that, we may be able to save some bees.
Cell Samples and Endangered Bees
“How can you collect cell samples from an endangered species? Doesn’t that kill the bee?” – Everybody
I’m glad you asked! The answer is, no, it doesn’t. The USDA has developed a cell collection technique that only trims a few milligrams off of one of the middle legs. Since we’re not collecting the rest of the bee, it’s very important to keep a detailed photographic record of the individuals we catch: that’s where I come in. It isn’t quite a specimen on a pin, but it works – and it doesn’t hurt the bee.
(Full disclosure: thanks to a genetic quirk that is unique to bees and their relatives, male bumblebees don’t contribute very much to the health or survival of their nests. We will occasionally collect a few in order to test for certain parasites and diseases.)
What We Need
The first $12,000
The first $12,000 pays for a really long road trip. In three months, we will collect samples from local populations in California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, and (time, weather, and customs permitting) British Columbia. We’ll visit many of them twice.
Here’s the breakdown:
The big ticket items are a 12 volt freezer, a backup battery, and a
Food: $4800 (assuming there are three
Maintenance: $900. Tires, windshield wipers, and whatever else
wears out on a 10 year old truck.
Specimen handling: $500. Mostly packaging, dry ice, and overnight shipping.
Camping by the truck builds character, but some nights you need to sleep
Surprises: $1000. I don’t know what else will go wrong during
three months on the road, but something probably will.
Buy the road trip, get the genetic analysis free!
One of the many reasons to support this project is that if we can pay for the data collection, the next step is already paid for! The cell samples will be stored and analyzed under an existing program at the USDA.
If we fall short
This is a fixed funding campaign: if we can’t pay for food, gas, and a freezer, we can’t go. In practical terms, that means that if we reach the end of June and the $12,000 goal is still in serious doubt, we will cancel the campaign, thank our supporters, and find something else to do.
If we get more
$12,000 is the minimum we think we need in order to make the trip. More will help!
Here are our ambitions, in rough order of importance:
Extended trip: $2300. We’d like to sample some local populations in
Alaska, but it will take a lot of gas…
Expenses and materials for the Rich Site Team:
$1000. The road team isn’t the only one
working this summer. The Rich Site team
is developing the techniques that we’ll use in the field next year.
Replacement photo gear: $5000. We’re currently using my personal
camera. It’s a reasonably durable beast,
but six years in the field have taken their toll, and the bee lens isn’t
weather sealed. A second camera and lens
would eliminate our biggest point of failure, and improve our documentary
images. As a bonus, for our next project,
we wouldn’t be limited to still images on our campaign page! (Not that she isn’t cute.)
More time sleeping indoors…
$9000. You may have noticed that
we haven’t said anything about covering our rent! We may be crazy volunteers (OK, we basically
are) but it would be nice to cover some personal expenses. This would cover $250 per week for each member of
the road team.
Beyond that, any additional funds will go to one or more of the following worthy ends (hey, we can dream):
Next year’s field work.
The University of Washington beekeeping
Field guide-quality photographs of native bees
(and, ultimately, a field guide to put them in.)
What You Get
If we collect the data we mean to collect, we will be able to determine how the different local populations of Western Bumblebees are related to one another. The odds are good that we will also be able to tell how the recovering populations in the Puget Sound area differ from the others.
In turn, that should tell us something about:
Whether we’re looking at bees that are getting
stronger, or a disease that’s getting weaker
Which disease killed them in the first place
How they’re reacting to it
- Whether the bees we call "Western Bumblebees" are really all a single species, or are actually more than one
How accurate our pollinator surveys have been
for the past twenty years.
Twenty years ago, the original plan to raise Western bumblebees in greenhouses collapsed when all their bees died. If we are able to identify the disease that killed them, and how they have begun to recover in spite of it, we could start seeing some cheap winter tomatoes after all.
The chief suspect in the collapse of the Western Bumblebee is a microsporidian parasite called Nosema bombi. It is closely related to two others, Nosema apis and Nosema ceranae, that are major killers of commercial honeybees. If the local bumblebees have begun to adapt to Nosema infection, we may learn how to improve the health of honeybees as well.
We’ll be adding more perks over the course of the campaign, but so far, we’re dividing them into two general categories: Things with bees on them and Pollinator art.
Things with bees on them
We have a nice library of original photographs of native bees and other pollinators, and we’ll be offering different ways to share those images with our supporters.
To begin with, we’re creating a set of a dozen high quality postcards, each with a different species of pollinator that is native to the Pacific Northwest. They are available individually and as a set. In addition, if you are looking for another way to stay in touch with the road team as the project unfolds, they are available postmarked – from the road! When we’re planning to pass by a mailbox, we’ll write some notes and drop them in the mail. If you sign up for the whole set that way, you’ll wind up collecting a road diary!
Again, we’ll be adding perks as the project progresses, but we have a few good ones to start with.
We are offering gallery-quality fine art prints on stretched canvas. They are digital prints that are stretched and finished by hand, and they are available in several sizes. The first few prints are from my last gallery show, but I will make more as needed. (Note: I probably won’t make any prints between the middle of June and the end of the road trip. Expect delivery of most canvas prints in September.)
Bee on a Rock
I’m really excited about this one! Award-winning miniatures painter Marike Reimer has created and donated a special entry in her remarkable series, Bug on a Rock. This one is a brilliantly rendered Western Bumblebee queen, and I believe that it’s unique in that it is painted from memory: she was with a UW entomology group when we found a live queen in the hills above Wenatchee, WA, and she painted a rock to mark the occasion.
(Seriously, this is pretty cool. Marike doesn’t take commissions any more, and my snarky tone is a poorly concealed effort to stave off the mini hordes until I can scrounge enough to get it myself. That’s legal, right?)
Other Ways to Help
Even if you can’t donate, there are a number of ways to help the project, and bumblebees in general. Here are a few:
Spread the word!
If you live west of the Rockies and north of L.A., then the Western
Bumblebees used to be your neighbors – and they could be again. Indiegogo has generously provided a number of
“share” links at the bottom of the page.
Keep an eye out for our missing bumblebees! If you see one, or if you want to know which
threatened species might be in your area, check out the resources at
Bumblebeewatch.org. (If you live on the west
coast, we have some tips on how to tell a Western Bumblebee apart from the
other locals here.) If you report a Western
Bumblebee sighting to Bumblebee Watch, they will let us know, and we will add
it to our itinerary if we can!
Plant some flowers, and cut back on
pesticides. Even in a city, a good
quality garden has been shown to make a difference to the local native bees.
If you’re in the Seattle area, we can always use volunteers for our site
monitoring project. There’s even a spot
left for a few weeks on the road team!