Entomologists searching to learn more about bumblebees in Alaska

A couple armed with bug nets wading through roadside fireweed were searching for bumblebees in the Chilkat Valley north of Haines earlier this month as part of a research effort to see if the Western Bumblebee’s range includes Alaska. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service scientists are considering proposing that the species be added to the endangered species list.

“It’s disappeared over a big chunk of its former range which stretched from California out to some of the western states and all the way up into British Columbia at about 55 degrees north,” said Derek Sikes, a University of Alaska Fairbanks professor of entomology.

“Haines and Skagway are the two Alaska localities that are at the greatest chance of that occurring. We’re just outside of its range. We don’t know if we’re on the edge or not. If we find it here, then presumably we are on the edge.”

Scant bumblebee data from Haines exists. The most recent museum records are from about 20 years ago, which included 29 specimens collected by Ken Philip, a UAF butterfly specialist who built the world’s largest private collection of Arctic Lepidoptera butterflies and moths — more than 120,000 of them.

The only other bumblebee records in Haines are eight specimens that date back to the 1950s when a U.S. Department of Agriculture entomologist based out of the Palmer research station collected specimens.

After collecting 136 specimens during their week in Haines, Sikes said he suspects he and his wife found most if not all the bumblebee species present in the Haines area. Melissa Sikes is a natural resource education specialist with the Fairbanks Soil and Water Conservation District. The specimens await microscopic identification but Sikes estimates the catch includes three common species and three to five less common species.

“There’s a lot of reasons why specimens are so important. They say a photo is worth a thousand words. A specimen is worth a million. There’s so much you can do with a specimen,” he said. “You can get the pollen off specimens that were collected hundreds of years ago and see what kinds of plants they were pollinating.”

While they didn’t find any Western Bumblebees, Sikes and his wife found a number of McKay’s Bumblebees in the river valley, the sister species of the Western Bumblebee. It was the second or third most common species found, he said.

“There’s some sort of weird disposition of endangerment because of the Western Bumblebee’s genetics, their natural history,” Sikes said. “We don’t know what it is. There are all sorts of ideas ranging from habitat alteration to temperatures.” There is a general pattern “of bumblebees disappearing in the warmer parts of their range so their ranges are kind of getting smaller.”

Some researchers think the decline could be attributed to parasites that affect bees raised commercially as greenhouse pollinators. Similar to the increase of parasites found in farmed salmon, the close proximity of animals makes it easier for parasites to spread.

Most bees, but bumbles especially, are aggressive pollinators, Sikes said. While many pollinating insects spread pollen incidentally in their search for nectar, female bumblebees collect the powdery substance in pollen sacs to feed to their young.

“They pack the pollen on this pollen basket so you sometimes see bees that have a big, yellow balls on part of their leg,” Sikes said.

A decrease in bumblebee populations would likely decrease plant life and the animals that feed on those plants.

“In England there’s some bees that have gone extinct and they’ve found some of the plants are having trouble as a result,” Sikes said. “Every species is part of this functioning ecosystem regardless of whether we understand its value to us. It seems prudent to not let them disappear. Aldo Leopold said only a fool, when taking apart an engine, would throw away seemingly useless parts.”


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