Tracking bumblebees

Have flowers? Then you probably have bumblebees, a docile, big-bodied species of bee that plays a considerable role in nature as a pollinator.

The fuzzy, usually yellow-and-black bees often visit flowers and blossoms in farm fields, orchards and gardens, but take a backseat to the royal honeybee.

But, as with the honeybees, experts are seeing a frightening trend. Colonies of bumblebees are reducing in numbers and may be disappearing.

A call has been made to citizen scientists everywhere – bumblebees need your help. You can join the Bumblebee Watch.

Rich Hatfield, a conservation biologist with the endangered species program of The Xerxes Society, said the watch is a collaborative effort created to track and conserve the many species of North America’s bumblebees.

It’s a nationwide effort and anyone who’s interested easily can participate by logging onto

There, citizen scientists can do a variety of entertaining yet helpful things, such as:

Upload photos of bumblebees to start a virtual bumblebee collection;

Identify the bumblebees in their photos and have the identifications verified by experts;

Help researchers determine the status and conservation needs of bumblebees;

Help locate rare or endangered populations of bumblebees, and

Learn about bumblebees, their ecology and ongoing conservation efforts.

“The idea came from reports dating back to the mid-1990s that several key species of bumblebees, once common across their respective ranges, were in dramatic decline,” Hatfield said. “In 2008, the Xerces Society began three of these species of bumblebees using citizen science.”

More than 50 species of bumblebees are found in North America. Tracking them will give scientists a better idea of how the insects truly are fairing.

Since the website and program was launched, Hatfield said it has proved successful. Nearly 200 confirmed sightings have been logged, helping to facilitate and inform the on-the-ground conservation efforts.

“Recent analysis has shown that more bumblebees than previously thought may be experiencing declines. It became clear that we needed a nationwide effort to track all species of bumblebees to get a better idea of how our bumblebees are faring, and where they might be in trouble,” he said. was developed in partnership with Wildlife Preservation Canada, The Montreal Insectarium, eButterfly, the University of Ottawa, BeeSpotter, and the Natural History Museum of London.

Anyone can participate in the watch program, from kids to adults alike.

“We find that gardeners, native plant enthusiasts and others that enjoy the outdoors are interested. This is a great way to engage in pollinator conservation in your backyard, and a great way to get more in touch with nature and our food systems. All it takes is a camera and a computer, or a smartphone,” Hatfield said.

Afraid of bees? Well, have no fear. Bumblebees are too busy working to worry about what a human is doing. They generally are very docile when visiting flowers because, Hatfield said, they are too busy collecting pollen and nectar to care.

“The only real danger with bumblebees is if you step on one with bare feet, or if you disturb their nesting location,” he said. “I’ve been working intimately with bumblebees for over a decade and I’ve only been stung a handful of times. All of these have been when I’ve had a bumblebee in a net to identify it. A camera is a much safer way to identify bumblebees.”

Bees – whether bumble or honey – face many threats, including pesticides, diseases, habitat alteration and destruction, and management activities.

“Knowing where bumblebees are thriving and where populations are in trouble will help us to identify conservation concerns, and to target conservation efforts,” Hatfield said.

The honeybee population also has declined in recent years, threatening food production in North America, but Hatfield argues that bumblebees are more important.

“While honeybees currently contribute more to the agro-economy than bumblebees, they are not native to North America. They were introduced to North America for their ability to create honey, a valuable sweetener, and it was later recognized that they are wonderful pollinators,” he said. “However, if we create habitat for our native bees, plenty of evidence exists which suggests that our native bees (including bumblebees) could provide 100 precent of pollination services for free (at least for some crops).”

He doesn’t doubt that honeybees are certainly in need of conservation attention but said they are not facing extinction like the bumblebee.

“Honeybees are largely a managed species and, thus, organizations like the USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture) should be working on management activities and agricultural practices that contribute to a healthy honeybee population,” Hatfield said. “Bumblebees and other native bees are essential to the North American ecosystem and keystone species because of the ecosystem service of pollination.”

Some species of bumblebees are in critical danger. Hatfield points out two – the rusty-patched bumblebee and Franklin’s bumblebee. Both have been petitioned for Endangered Species Act protection.

The Franklin bumblebee has not been seen since 2006 and is feared extinct.

One other species may be drawing close to extinction.

“The Ashton cuckoo bumblebee, native to the east, may also be nearing extinction. There are also recent reports that managed honeybees may be transmitting diseases to wild bumblebees at flowers, further endangering our native bumblebees,” Hatfield said.