The Super Secret Ninja-ness of the Wisconsin Bumble Bee Brigade

:Lindsay Knapp

Approximately two months ago, I found myself sitting in a buzzy little morning meeting; warm with June’s glow.  Twenty of southern Wisconsin’s astute bee-lovers joined forces under the leadership of Eva Lewandowski of DNR to receive updated training on bee-monitoring and survey logging. 

WHAT!?  What is this ?!  I’ll pause here to acknowledge that the existence of a sub-culture of bee enthusiasts might be a bit surprising to our reading audience.  In fact, as a participant of this training I, myself, was surprised to see the enthusiasm surrounding these small insects. I mean, “What’s all the buzz!?”  – right??

Bumble Bee Brigade is no small thing.  These volunteer bee- monitors must know some hidden vital piece of information to sacrifice their summer afternoons learning to stand still and watch for bumble bees.  So what is it!? What is the secret life of bees!?

Firstly, it’s worth noting that we’re talking BUMBLE BEES.  Bumblebees and honey bees are two totally different species.  Honey bees get all the publicity because we, like the Pooh Bear of the hundred acre wood, love our honey.  The misinformation around honey bees is astounding. While we love our honey, we fail to understand (as a societal whole) that honey bees are not indigenous to North America.  They were brought here- somehow- on a boat likely from Europe. And although that makes us all very happy, because- well, honey. It is still worth noting that these bees pollinate the same flowers as bumblebees do (our native friends) thus creating competition for resources.   

What the bumblebee brigade is achieving through their annual trainings is an organized and systematic way of equipping volunteer bee-lovers with identification tools and a data entry forum to showcase photographed bees in the state of Wisconsin.  We’re looking for a tell-tale sign that ecological life building blocks are remaining in place; building blocks like the bumble bee. Bumble bees are some of the most effective pollinators of tomatoes, sweet peppers, strawberries, kiwi fruit and cranberries due to their ability to “buzz pollinate”.  And this, my friends, is what all the buzz is about. Vibration pollinating makes the bumble bee the elite and sometimes exclusive pollinator of certain plants. If our bumble bee population dwindles, so does our food supply.

According to Clemson.edu, college of Agriculture and Forestry:

“Bumble bees’ natural nesting habitat has been drastically decreased by industrial and residential expansion. Large farm monoculture practices are also detrimental to good nesting sites. “

In the two separately restored prairies at Hawthorn Hollow Nature Preserve, bumble bee populations have been known to fluctuate through out the years, but according to the on-site ecologist, Lori Artiomow says that the numbers are the lowest they’ve been.   Bumble bee numbers can fluctuate based on variables like weather and predators, but one specific bee has been on Lori’s observation radar the entire season; the rusty patch bumble-bee. This species of native bumble bee has been on the endangered list since 2017.  According to National Geographic, 

“It’s official: For the first time in the United States, a bumblebee species has been declared endangered. The rusty patched bumblebee (Bombus affinis), once a common sight, is “now balancing precariously on the brink of extinction,” according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.”

Hawthorn Hollow used to be home to countless numbers of rusty-patch bees, but was hard-pressed to find a single bee this season.  

Bumblebee brigade volunteers serve an important purpose when they set out to scout for bees.  We’re checking to see if our beloved pollinators are facing extinction. As a member of the bumblebee brigade, hope returned to me this year when on my last day of monitoring at Hawthorn Hollow, I was able to photograph my first ever rusty-patch bee on a stiff goldenrod flower.  

For more information on the underground ninja-ness of bumblebee brigade and to participate in a training to help you monitor and identify bees, visit:  Wisconsin Bumble Bee Brigade: http://wiatri.net/inventory/bbb/

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