| Story by Meghan McMahon |
One of our most important — and fuzziest — insects is facing steep population declines, putting their very survival at risk.
Bumble bees, those big and bumbling bees that seem so much less threatening than other stinging insects, are critical pollinators, buzzing from flower to flower to feed on nectar and pollen. All that eating by the bees creates an unintended — but enormously useful — consequence: pollination, according to the U.S Forest Service.
Bumble bees pollinate the wildflowers in your yard and neighborhood parks and gardens, but also many agricultural crops, including tomatoes, squash, berries and alfalfa. All told, more than 80 percent of the flowering plants across the globe require a pollinator for reproduction, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In fact, one in every three bites of food is made possible by pollinators. And the most important pollinator in the world? Bees.
Unlike honey bees, bumble bees are native to the United States, one of several types of bees native to our continent along with carpenter bees, leafcutter bees, mason bees, mining bees and plasterer bees, according to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.
About 4,000 bee species are native to the United States. Illinois is home to between 400 and 500 species of native bees, but only nine of these hundreds of bee species are bumble bees, according to the University of Illinois’ BeeSpotter project. Our state bumble bees are the American bumble bee, the black and gold bumble bee, the brown-belted bumble bee, the common eastern bumble bee, the half-black bumble bee, the rusty-patched bumble bee, the southern plains bumble bee, the two-spotted bumble bee and the yellow bumble bee. The rusty-patched bumble bee is an endangered species.
Like many other pollinators, native bee populations are on the decline across much of their range, IDNR reports. In the case of bumble bees, they are much less populous than they used to be. In fact, you’re almost 50 percent less likely to see a bumble bee today in any given place in North America than you were before 1974, according to a study published in Science.
Researchers believe bumble bee populations are in danger because of climate change, according to a study published in Science. As temperature and precipitation patterns change, many bumble bee species could be at increased risk of extinction.
One reason for this is because bees are better equipped for cooler weather. Because they can generate heat while flying and are protected and insulated by the fuzzy hairs covering their bodies, bumble bees are typically one of the first insects seen each spring, National Geographic reports.
As Earth gets warmer, bumble bees are increasingly susceptible, according to the Science study. In warmer weather, bumble bees can overheat, and climate change also affects the plants they rely on for their food supply.
However, climate change isn’t the only factor having a negative effect on these bees. Other drivers in the downward population trend of bumble bees include the use of pesticides like neonicotinoids, which are toxic to all bees, as well as habitat loss, pathogens and the release of non-native bees to aid in commercial pollination, National Geographic reports.
In the case of bumble bees, their work as pollinators makes them especially crucial. Read on to what makes these fuzzy bees so special and what you can do to help ensure they are here for good.