Bumble Bee Recovery

Yellow-banded bumble bees and rusty-patched bumble bees were once common pollinators in Canada. Unfortunately, their numbers have been declining rapidly.

We are currently developing techniques to establish conservation breeding colonies of rare native bumble bee species. Ultimately, our goal is to safely reintroduce these bees into now-vacant areas of their historic range.

Originally, we focused our attention on the rusty-patched bumble bee. However, despite intensive annual searches throughout Ontario since 2012, our team has been unable to locate a single member of this species. The last sighting occurred in 2009 at Pinery Provincial Park in southwestern Ontario.

That’s why we turned our attention to yellow-banded bumble bees. Using this species as a surrogate, we are developing conservation breeding techniques that we can apply to the rusty-patched bumble bee if and when queens become available.

Although we began working with the yellow-banded bumble bee in order to save its rusty-patched cousin, yellow-banded bumble bee numbers have also been dropping. In 2015 it was assessed as a species of Special Concern by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC). Since 2016, it has been listed as a species of Special Concern in Ontario, adding extra purpose to our efforts.

Monitoring

To improve our understanding of bumble bee populations in Ontario, our staff conduct surveys of bumble bees from Long Point to the Bruce Peninsula, north to Sudbury and east to Algonquin Park. We also coordinate volunteer programs that train members of the public to conduct surveys throughout the summer.

To broaden the search even further, we launched www.bumblebeewatch.org in collaboration with several partners in 2014. This website allows citizen scientists to help us locate populations of declining species, assess changes in population size and distribution, and track invasive species throughout North America — crucial information that will help shape our hands-on recovery work.

In the future, we hope to expand search efforts across the country, training citizen scientists to identify these rare bees. If you are interested in launching a volunteer survey project in your area, please contact us.

Conservation breeding

Conservation breeding efforts began in Ontario in 2014. Each spring, our team scours the province for yellow-banded queens that we use to try to establish breeding colonies. In 2014 and 2015, we also partnered with FaunENord in an attempt to establish yellow-banded bumblebee colonies at a facility in northern Quebec.

In order to establish managed colonies, wild queens must be collected as early as possible in the spring, before they have begun a colony in the wild.  The queens are then provided with a nesting space in ideal conditions and fed regularly.  If all goes well, they will first produce workers, then reproductive males, and then, finally, new queens.  After the males and new queens mate, all but the new queens die off naturally, while the queens go into hibernation for the winter.  The new queens will then hopefully start colonies of their own in the spring.

Once we establish a number of disease-free colonies, we can begin developing strategies to release mated queens into suitable habitat to boost wild populations. Meanwhile, research with captive colonies can provide insights into threats facing wild populations, including pesticides, parasites and lack of genetic variation.

Thousands of bee sightings are reported on www.bumblebeewatch.org each year, from Puerto Rico to Baffin Island. Rusty-patched bumble bees have been spotted in five midwestern U.S. states. They have also been spotted in Virginia and Maine, where the species was thought to have disappeared.

Meanwhile, conservation breeding of yellow-banded bumble bees has proven to be challenging. We had limited success in 2014 and 2015, but through constant refinement of our techniques we hit a major milestone in 2016, with our colonies producing their first new queens.  Full results after three years of working with managed colonies are shown below.

2014 2015 2016
Queens collected 31 36 40
Colonies producing eggs 2 17 37
Colonies with workers 0 7 21
Colonies with males 0 1 18
New queens 0 0 4

Once our conservation breeding techniques are yielding satisfactory results, we will begin developing release methods to effectively boost wild populations. We can also use these techniques to return the rusty-patched bumble bee to its historic range in Ontario and Quebec, most likely by using queens from the United States.

Sarah Johnson
Lead Biologist

Sarah is Wildlife Preservation Canada’s newest lead biologist, joining our Native Pollinator Initiative in August 2016. Sarah grew up in the small town of Salmon Arm, British Columbia and has spent the past nine years completing her education in Calgary, Alberta.
She has a Bachelor’s degree in Natural Science with concentrations in Biology and Math, and a Master’s in Ecology, both from the University of Calgary. She has experience from both the pollinator and the plant perspective – her undergraduate project involved an experiment examining the effects of wing wear (a ecologically critical trait) on bumblebees using a captive colony, and her master’s thesis investigated how wildflower reproduction is impacted by clear cut logging in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Since the spring of 2015, Sarah has also been involved in the initiation of a large-scale research program in the prairies of southern Alberta, examining how the agricultural landscape impacts pollinator diversity and abundance with specific implications for a threatened species in the area, the western bumblebee.
Though exceptionally passionate about pollinators, Sarah also has experience working outside of the world of bees – she was a volunteer at a local wildlife rehabilitation society in Calgary for several years helping with orphaned and injured animal care, and is an amateur birder excited to expand her life list in a new province.

How you can help: