'Bee nerd' hopes rare bumblebee is rebounding in West

By Sandi Doughton

The Seattle Times

Published: Saturday, June 28 2014 12:00 a.m. MDT

This photo provided by Stephanie Cobbold, of the IDFG Wildlife Diversity Program shows a Western bumblebee which was one of three documented in the Idaho Panhandle last summer. Western bumblebees were common in the Western United States and western Canada before 1998, but have since declined drastically in some areas, according to the Xerces Society.

Courtesy of Stephanie Cobbold IDFG Wildlife Diversity Program

Enlarge photo»

SEATTLE — For Will Peterman, the first thrill was spotting a rare, Western bumblebee north of Seattle last summer.

The second was when the calls and emails started rolling in.

Once abundant throughout the Western United States, the bumblebee with the distinctive white rump began to disappear in the 1990s. By the time Peterman made his discovery, some experts feared it was gone forever from the Puget lowlands.

But after Peterman's "six-legged Bigfoot" was publicized, scores of people stepped up to say they, too, had seen the species buzzing around their neighborhoods.

Like Bigfoot sightings, the majority of the reports didn't pan out. But several did.

Peterman and a corps of volunteers have since confirmed colonies near Everett, Lynnwood, Tacoma and on the Olympic Peninsula.

Now, he hopes to conduct a more thorough survey to find out if the species called Bombus occidentalis may be on the rebound and — perhaps — evolving resistance to the disease scientists suspect triggered the population crash.

"At the top of our list is figuring out what's going on with the recovery — if it really is a recovery," said Peterman, a writer, photographer and self-described "bee nerd."

He has assembled an impressive list of collaborators, including scientists at the University of California, Davis, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). What he doesn't have is money.

So Peterman and his volunteers — mostly University of Washington students — have turned to crowdfunding with an Indiegogo campaign to raise $12,000.

That's enough for three or four people to travel Washington, Oregon, Idaho and several Rocky Mountain states this summer in search of Western bumblebees, Peterman said. In addition to counting insects and noting their locations, the volunteers also plan to collect cell samples for DNA analysis.

The DNA tests, which will be performed at no cost by the USDA's Bee Biology and Systematics Lab in Utah, may reveal genetic shifts in the species or characteristics that have allowed some remnant populations to survive while others perished.

"It's kind of like DNA fingerprinting for bees," said USDA entomologist James Strange.

Native bumblebees haven't received nearly as much scientific attention as honeybees, a commercially important nonnative that has been decimated by a mysterious ailment called colony collapse disorder.

While some native bumblebee species are in decline, others remain healthy, Strange said. Otherwise, home gardeners wouldn't be able to grow tomatoes, which are only pollinated naturally by bumblebees.

Since not all bumblebee species were affected when Bombus occidentalis and a close relative declined precipitously, researchers suspected disease rather than pesticides or environmental degradation.

UC Davis entomologist Robbin Thorp, who documented the decline, blames a gut parasite called Nosema bombi. A definitive link has not been proved, but Thorp and other scientists suspect the bug hitchhiked to North America in the 1990s when Western bumblebees commercially bred in Europe were shipped to the U.S., Canada and Mexico.

Tomato, cranberry and blueberry farmers bought colonies and let them loose in fields or greenhouses, Thorp explained.

Strange and his colleagues at the USDA surveyed much of the West beginning in 2006 and found that Bombus occidentalis was largely gone from about 30 percent of its range, particularly west of the Cascade and Sierra Mountains.

East of the mountains and in high-elevation refuges near the Olympic Mountains and Cascade volcanoes, populations survived, though in lower numbers.

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