Like it or not, we gardeners have a hobby that puts us right on the front line of international wildlife protection during what scientists are calling the Sixth Age of Extinction (the last extinction age 65 million years ago marking the end of the dinosaurs). At this point, there may not be much we can do at the individual level to save the polar bears, but many of the small but important critters that make their home in our gardens for some or part of the year — the bees, butterflies, moths, turtles, toads, frogs — across the planet, across the board, you’ll find these species listed in high numbers on endangered and declining species lists. They’re all suffering from the same problem – widespread habitat loss and declines due to human activity. The fact is, the simple act of tending a garden makes us habitat “managers” for all the wildlife that pass under, through and above our yards, so with that in mind, gardening can be an empowering tool for us to help at-risk wildlife in our own backyards.
If you’ve been reading Beautiful Wildlife Garden for a while, you already know that avoiding pesticides and planting regionally native plants are ways every gardener can help local wildlife and enhance natural biodiversity.
Here’s another way to help.
Learn to identify the bees and birds you see around you, and report your sightings to the conservation groups focussed on saving them.
If you love birds, you may have been busy this winter reporting bird sightings during February’s Great Backyard Bird Count and the Audubon Christmas Bird Count. Thanks for helping! The data helps scientists determine the most at-risk species in order to prioritize protection efforts. But it’s time for the bees to have their turn…
You may have heard about the devastating European honey bee declines (Colony Collapse Disorder) that threaten global agricultural interests — in other words, our food supply! But our native pollinating bees also show large declines, and considering the keystone status of pollinating insects in our natural ecosystems, their escalating losses are a very large red flag being waved frantically by ecologists who can already see ecosystems begin to collapse.
But to understand what is happening and slow down the losses, scientists need to know the facts about our various bee species, of which there are a staggering number. Worldwide, there are more bee species than mammal and bird species combined. In New England alone, we likely have over a thousand varieties of native bees.
Among them, the humble bumble bee, one of our more important pollinating bees.
The Xerces Society (a conservation organization that studies invertebrate insects, including bees) has noted rapid, precipitous drops in bumble bee species in just the past few decades. Several species that live only in small micro-habitats of the West are now almost completely disappeared, but what is really alarming is that formerly common American bumble bees are also in steep decline, including the western bumble bee (Bombus occidentalis) (pictured right) and the eastern rusty patched bumble bee (Bombus affinis) (pictured below). Both were abundant across their range until recently but are now in the Xerces Society’s “top four” of American endangered bumble bees facing imminent extinction.
Bumble bees are particularly important pollinators for many of our domestic and wild food crops, along with many other flowering plants, because they pollinate flowers in a way that honey bees cannot. Bumbles perform buzz pollination, in which they vibrate their flight muscles inside flowers, causing pollen to discharge and in the process improving pollination for food plants such as tomato, pepper, blueberry and cranberry as well as wild flowers such as Dicentra and Solomon’s Seal. Bumble bees also have fur, which picks up lots of pollen that the bees carry to other flowers.
Why the sudden declines? One contributing reason is growers that import bumble bees to pollinate crops – the imported bees bring in foreign pathogens that infect our native bumbles, who lack immunity and die off in droves. Habitat loss and disruption of nesting sites is another big reason.
Have you seen bumble bees around your area? Look around your garden this year and report your findings to the Xerces Society to help scientists learn how to protect our remaining bumble bees. The good news is that bumble bees are quite docile when they visit flowers for nectar, and they are not likely to bother you while you hover over them with a camera.
You can fill out an online survey reporting your sightings, or email a photo if you think you’ve seen one of the endangered species. In New England, the Vermont Center for Ecostudies will be launching a Vermont Bee Survey later this year to document current bee populations in the state. Vermonters can help by IDing and reporting the bumble bee species they find to the survey – details to be announced later this winter.
Photo at right: The endangered rusty patched bumble bee was very common on most of the east coast of the US and upper midwest, until just the past few decades. Bee collections and a variety of studies dating from the 1960s and 1970s still showed high numbers of this bee, but more recent field monitoring across Vermont has found none at all in the last few years!
Have the rusty-patched bumble bee gone extinct in New England? Hopefully not. I am pretty sure I have seen this bee in my own central Massachusetts gardens, although I need to take photos this summer to confirm its ID. There are other bumble bees native to this area that have red/brown/orange bands similar to the rusty-patched bumble. My bee could be another “belted” bumble found in New England, including the tri-colored or orange-belted bumble bee (Bombus ternaris), or red-belted bumble bee (Bombus rufocinctus).
Which brings me to a problem about looking for bumble bees — many of them look alike and it can be hard to nail down the exact species of the bumbles in your gardens. Use a camera to get some good photos of the bees you see and refer to online resources such as BugGuide.net or DiscoverLife.org to ID your bees. You can also print out one of the Xerces Society’s free pocket guides to identifying bumble bee species:
So even if you don’t consider yourself a “wildlife gardener”, you can still contribute to wildlife conservation by reporting your bumble bee numbers. Your data will help scientists decide how to protect the biodiversity that we still have! And don’t forget all the other ways you can help native bees in your own garden…
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