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  • J. Woken

Rusty Patched Bumble Bee

Updated: Dec 5, 2019

In our land of 10,000 Lakes, we have a state bird (Loon), a state fish (Walleye), a state flower (Pink Lady Slipper), a state tree (Norway Pine)… We pretty much have a state anything (milk is our state drink!). But did you know that we also have a state bee?

The Rusty Patched Bumble Bee (bombus affinis) is a cute little fellow, and one literally bumped into me at Riverside Park in Cannon Falls a few weeks ago. With the tiniest little ‘thump’ on my sleeve and a delicate little ‘plop’ onto the sidewalk, there it was: a distinctly furry and quite adorable rusty patched bumble bee, our beloved—and endangered—state bee.


The rusty patched bumble bee was adopted as the state bee not so long ago in May 2019. There was even some celebration at the State Fair on August 29 at the Department of Natural Resources’ exhibit, where people “celebrated the benefits of designating the rusty patched bumble bee, a federally endangered species, as the Minnesota state bee.”[i] The rusty patched bumble bee made the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s endangered species list in 2017 after environmentalists counted around an 83% decline in the species’s population. But, other than vastly declining numbers, what makes the rusty patched bumble bee so special?


First, it’s helpful to examine the differences between bumble bees and honey bees. Here are the big ones: (1) bumble bees can sting multiple times, while honeybees can only sting once; (2) bumble bee colony populations hover in the multiple hundreds of bees, while a honey bee colony can be upwards of 10,000 bees; (3) bumble bees are characteristically more ‘rotund’, their bodies rounder and less aerodynamic than those of honey bees; (4) bumble bees live underground while honey bees create nests in hollows above the ground—like tree hollows, wall interiors, or (of course), man-made hive boxes.[ii]


Rusty patched bumble bees are native to the northeastern and eastern United States and some Canadian provinces. Prior to the mid-1900s, these bees occupied areas across 31 states and provinces; today, they are down to 14, less than half. They live underground in large, undisturbed grasslands and prairies and forage for nectar and pollen within about a 0.6-mile radius of their nest. New queen bees seek out a new nest site each spring to start their colonies, often choosing an abandoned small mammal burrow[iii] or a big clump of uncut grasses at the edge of an open field. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service lists the following as threats to the rusty patched bumble bee population: intensive farming practices, disease, pesticides, and global climate change.[iv]


Bumble bees have a specific type of pollination technique called “buzz pollination”, where the bees “grab the flower’s antlers and vibrate their wing muscles to release pollen that would otherwise not be reached. Buzz pollination is imperative for important crops such as tomatoes, peppers and cranberries.” The most telling distinction of the bumble bee? That, while bumble bees don’t depend on one flower species to survive, “there are some [flower] species that depend on just them [bumble bees]![v] In essence: We lose the bumble bee, we lose some species of flowers.


There is an ongoing debate about the global bee population, whether it is “dying” or “safe”. It seems the answer depends largely on what one means by “bee population”—managed (farmed) honey bees? Wild bees? Every kind of bee (of which there are honey, bumble, leafcutter, mason, mining, plasterer, woodcarver, flower, stingless, and long-horned[vi])? An article from Farm Journal in 2015 makes claim that the global bee population is actually on the rise, although in reading the article it appears they are specifically referencing managed/farmed bee populations and not wild bee colonies.[vii] On the other end of the spectrum, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (aka FAO) expressed concern on World Bee Day (May 20) that “the global decline in bee populations poses a serious threat to a wide variety of plants critical to human well-being and livelihoods”.[viii]


Whatever your stance on the current and future bee population, we can all agree that where bees are happy, the local wild is happy! Minnesota legislators agree, and in 2020 our state will begin offering grants to property owners who plant “bee friendly” gardens and yards. The Lawns to Legumes program—which is “focused on planting residential lawns with native vegetation and pollinator friendly forbs and legumes to protect a diversity of pollinators”—has $900,000 to dish out. Individual homeowners can obtain up to $500 each. More information on the program can be found at https://bwsr.state.mn.us/lawns-legumes-program-your-yard-can-bee-change.


Other ways you can help benefit our state bee: plant bee-friendly yarsd that include flowers, herbs, vegetables, as well as pollen-producing trees like oak, cherry, and dogwood; avoid pesticide use; make undisturbed plots of soft soil available along garden edges for nesting real estate.


As our local wild creeps into freezing temperatures, the queens of next year’s rusty patched bumble bee colonies are going into hibernation. They’ll emerge in the spring in search of new nesting sites and, with the help of brand new happy pollinator gardens and the work of folks like you, they’ll have more real estate options than they’ve had in a long while.


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[i] “State Fair event highlights new state bee designation”, MN Department of Natural Resources, 29August2019. URL: https://www.dnr.state.mn.us/news/2019/08/29/state-fair-event-highlights-new-state-bee-designation. Accessed: 12Oct2019.


[ii] “Honey Bees vs Bumble Bees”, Western Pest Services, © 2019. URL: https://www.westernpest.com/pest-control/stinging-insects/bees/honey-bees/vs-bumble-bee/. Accessed: 12Oct2019.


[iii] “Rusty Patched Bumble Bee”, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Last updated: 29May2019. URL: https://www.fws.gov/midwest/Endangered/insects/rpbb/lifehistory.html. Accessed: 12Oct2019.


[iv] “Fact Sheet: Rusty Patched Bumble Bee (Bombus affinis)”, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Last updated: 29May2019. URL: https://www.fws.gov/midwest/endangered/insects/rpbb/factsheetrpbb.html. Accessed: 12Oct2019.


[v] Statman-Well, Zoe. “Rusty-Patched Bumblebee (Bombus affinis)”, U.S. Forest Service, no publication date. Accessed: 12Oct2019.


[vi] “Types of Bees”, BuzzAboutBees.Net. © 2010-2019. URL: https://www.buzzaboutbees.net/types-of-bees.html. Accessed: 12Oct2019.


[vii] Syngenta, “Bee population rising around the world”, 19Jan2015. Farm Journal, Inc. URL: https://www.agprofessional.com/article/bee-population-rising-around-world. Accessed: 12Oct2019.


[viii] “Declining bee populations pose threat to global food security and nutrition”, FAO, 20May2019. URL: http://www.fao.org/news/story/en/item/1194910/icode/. Accessed: 12Oct2019.

A Rusty Patched Bumble Bee rests on the sidewalk at Riverside Park in Cannon Falls. Note the distinctive dark “patch” between the wings. / Jessica Woken

#thelocalwild #nature #bees #bumblebees #Minnesota #ecology #pollinators #insects #endangered

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