Saturday, July 2, 2016

Maine Bumble Bee Atlas

Note: This program first aired on July 2, 2016.

Citizen science is a growing movement in this country. I’ve talked about it before on the show, describing the Signs of the Seasons program that uses the observations of amateur naturalists to document the phenological patterns of seasonal events, like when the red maple trees are in bloom, when various sea weeds become reproductive and when the first wood frogs are heard. The timing of those events results from environmental cues, particularly temperature, and thus changes in the timing of those key seasonal milestones could reflect and inform our understanding of how the environment is responding to climate change.

Another citizen science initiative underway here in Maine is the Maine Bumble Bee Atlas, a project designed to use trained volunteers to survey bumblebee populations throughout the state. Like the Butterfly and Dragonfly surveys before it, the goal of the Bumble Bee Atlas project is to document the abundance, diversity and distribution of bumblebees in Maine, in the absence of any good baseline data. Because we lack baseline data, we don’t really know what bees are here or how many of them there are. Historic records point to 17 different species of bumblebees in the state, but those historic records are incomplete. And while there have been documented declines in bumblebee populations in other parts of the country, we don’t know if that has happened here. At its simplest, the project will establish a baseline of understanding with data from all over the state, collected over a 5 year period, that will allow scientists to have a high degree of confidence that what is out there has truly been sampled, and that the data set really reflects the diversity distribution and abundance. You get enough people collecting enough data in enough places, you stand a high probability of having enough overlap to get good coverage. Citizen science is based on this premise, it accomplishes through the use of knowledgeable volunteers what it never could relying only on professional field biologists. There are plenty of us willing and interested volunteers, and not enough field biologists to generate this massive, multi year data set.

I recently attended the one day training session in preparation for participating in this year’s sampling season, and learned that volunteering is a great way to get education. I learned a lot I didn’t know about bumblebees, it was very exciting for a super nerd like myself. Bumblebees are of course of interest because of their ecological role as native pollinators of flowering plants. Something like 90% of angiosperm species rely at least in part on some form of animal pollination. Here in Maine there are many different insect species that perform this pollination job. The Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths), ants, beetles, wasps and hornets (especially the wasp and hornet queens), flies, bee flies (which are bee parasites), and bees. We have over 250 species of native bees in Maine, most of which are solitary bees, only 17 of which are bumble bees. Relative to other states this is actually a pretty low number of bee species. The boxes of honey bees you see on blue berry barrens in late spring are native to Europe, and are used commercially for agricultural pollination because their colonies grow large quickly, providing thousands of foraging (and thus pollinating) individuals in each colony.

It can’t be stressed enough the role these pollinators play in terrestrial ecosystems. Plants and insects have evolved over millions of years to rely on one another, and declines in pollinating insects result in declines in vegetation. Plants are the source of all of our energy, they are the means by which energy from the sun becomes useful to us biologically. In both ecological and agricultural systems, without mechanisms of pollination, you will see declines.

Next week we’ll look more closely at the specifics of bumble bee natural history, and learn how their lifestyle makes them unique among those 250+ species of native bees in Maine.


Listing of citizen science opportunities throughout New England (not sure how up to date:

The Maine Bumble Bee Atlas blog:

The Maine Bumble Bee Atlas on Facebook (current and great photos!)