Six Legged Bigfoot: the Fall and Rise of the Western Bumblebee

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In the 1990s, the Western Bumblebee almost disappeared. Now, it may be coming back. Help us find out what happened, what's happening, and what to do next.
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Will Peterman
Email Verified
Environment
Seattle, Washington
United States
4 Team Members

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.

Introduction

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 Story

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:

  • Hardware: $1500.  The big ticket items are a 12 volt freezer, a backup battery, and a weather meter.
  • Gas: $2300.
  • Food: $4800 (assuming there are three volunteers.)
  • 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.
  • Housing: $1000.  Camping by the truck builds character, but some nights you need to sleep indoors.
  • 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.

Our Team

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.)
  • Housing: $1000.  More time sleeping indoors…
  • Stipend:  $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 internship program.
  • Field guide-quality photographs of native bees (and, ultimately, a field guide to put them in.)

What You Get

Science!

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.

Tomatoes!

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.

Honey!

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.

Perks!

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!

Pollinator Art

Again, we’ll be adding perks as the project progresses, but we have a few good ones to start with.

Canvas Prints

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.  They help!
  • 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.
  • Volunteer!  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!

Find This Campaign On
$18,103USD
raised by 129 people in 2 months
151% funded
0 time left
$12,000 USD goal
Fixed Funding This campaign has ended and will receive all funds raised.
Campaign Closed
This campaign ended on August 1, 2014
Select a Perk
  • $1USD
    Tip of the hat, and then some!

    Seriously, everything helps. Tell your friends!

    0 claimed
  • $10USD
    Postcard

    A beautifully printed postcard of a Pacific Northwest native pollinator, suitable for office walls, refrigerators, coffee shops, or anywhere else that you want to remind people to think of the bees. You can even mail it to someone!

    17 claimed
  • $25USD
    Postcard (your choice)

    As above, but you get to pick your postcard (from a set of 12.) Are you on Team Agapostemon? (Agapostemon are cool: if only these descriptions allowed links...) Be loud! Be proud!

    18 claimed
  • $50USD
    Postcard, postmarked

    We'll send you one of our pollinator postcards from somewhere on the road, along with a note about where we are and how things are going. Think of it as your own personal blog post, suitable for framing (if you like to frame things.)

    25 claimed
  • $100USD
    Postcards, set of 12

    Having trouble choosing from the beautiful array of pollinator postcards? No problem! You can get them all!

    9 claimed
  • $200USD
    18" canvas print

    A hand-stretched fine art print on canvas, depicting one of our native pollinators. You can choose from existing prints (first come, first served) or place a custom order. Custom orders will not ship until the road trip is over in September.

    5 claimed
  • $250USD
    Postcards, 12, postmarked

    Collect them all! Twelve postcards, lovingly mailed from beautiful(*) places all over the western U.S. (and possibly Canada.) Taken together, you will have a personal record of the road team's progress in pursuit of the Western Bumblebee. (*) Standards of beauty may vary, and may refer to locations near the mailbox, rather than the mailbox itself. We will mail, at most, one postcard from Seattle.

    2 claimed
  • $500USD
    Stop on the Road

    Thank you for your support! In fact, you are so awesome, and so obviously committed to pollinator conservation, that we would like to thank you in person. Of course, just because we would like to doesn't mean that we will -- our schedule gets pretty strict in places -- but we will call or email ahead of our closest approach to wherever you are, and if we can stop by and say hello, we will.

    0 claimed
  • $500USD
    24" Canvas Print

    A gallery quality, hand-stretched fine art print on canvas, depicting one of our native pollinators. You can choose from existing prints (first come, first served) or place a custom order. Custom orders will not ship until the road trip is over in September.

    0 claimed
  • $1,000USD
    30" Canvas Print

    A gallery quality, hand-stretched fine art print on canvas, depicting one of our native pollinators. You can choose from existing prints (first come, first served) or place a custom order. Custom orders will not ship until the road trip is over in September.

    0 claimed
  • SOLD OUT

    $1,000USD
    Bee on a Rock

    Award-winning miniatures artist Marike Reimer was in the field with a group of UW entomology students when they discovered a new local population of Western Bumblebees. She created this special entry in her "Bug on a Rock" series to mark the occasion. We are proud to announce the rare opportunity to acquire a Marike Reimer original. (It's also a really cool bee on a rock.)

    1 out of 1 claimed
  • $2,500USD
    36" canvas print

    This is a unique print: the one and only 36" stretched canvas print of the ur-photo, the one that started it all. This is the photograph that confirmed the reappearance of the Western Bumblebee, that was picked up by the Seattle Times, and that started the Western Bumblebee Project. It's a really big print. I love the result, but I'm never making another one. Includes shipping.

    0 out of 1 claimed
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