Rare bumblebee found at Sky Meadows State Park

By Katie Demeria

After five years, the rusty-patched bumblebee has finally resurfaced in the eastern United States.

Bill McShea of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and T’ai Roulston, a research associate professor with the University of Virginia, were part of a Virginia Working Landscapes study that surveyed bee populations in 17 Virginia sites, according to a Smithsonian news release.

The rusty-patched bumblebee was found this summer at Sky Meadows State Park in Delaplane and identified a few weeks ago.

“This is potentially a bit of hope amidst a whole lot of bad news about the loss of pollinators,” Roulston said.

The bee has not been seen in the eastern United States in five years, and in the past 10 years there have been only five collections of the species, according to Roulston.

It is also found in the Midwest, but its numbers are declining there, as well.

“This formerly common bee has disappeared from 87 percent of its range in the Upper Midwest and Eastern Seaboard and is feared headed for extinction,” the release stated.

While the find, Roulston said, could just represent one of the last pockets of this bee species, another “less depressing possibility is that we found some that have found resistance to whatever it is that has wiped out the rest of them.”

“This could represent a new beginning for the species,” he continued.

It is not entirely clear what caused the rusty-patched bumblebee’s decline, but one possibility was the accidental introduction of a European fungus.

In the late 1980s, some species of American bumblebees were taken to Europe so they could be produced commercially. Those bees were then brought back to the United States.

“The timing of the decline was coincident with that commercialization process,” Roulston pointed out.

With this discovery, Roulston said, researchers could potentially discover for certain why the species declined, which is valuable information because it could reveal why other species of pollinators have declined, as well.

Researchers will return to the area in the spring to look for more. McShea said the specimen found was a worker bee.

“If there’s a worker bee, there’s a queen bee, so where is the colony? What can we do to encourage that colony?” McShea said.

In the meantime, researchers, as well as those working with the Virginia Working Landscapes study, will continue encouraging landowners to plant flowers for pollinators and control against invasive species in order to enhance diversity.

“Everybody is usually driving to Shenandoah National Park to see wildlife and biodiversity, but our landscape here has a lot of value in it, and it’s sitting out there in the middle of these fields, and we should have some appreciation of that,” McShea said.

Roulston pointed out the importance of encouraging the continued existence of pollinators on private land, too.

“If we start losing species of bumblebees, then that will start to have implications for both wild plants as well as agricultural plants,” Roulston said. “It’s not an obscure group, it’s ecologically very dominant and a very important group of pollinators.”

Contact staff writer Katie Demeria at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or kdemeria@nvdaily.com