We are currently developing techniques to establish conservation breeding colonies of at-risk native bumble bee species. Through rearing these bumble bees in captivity, we have the rare opportunity to observe all aspects of the colony life cycle up close and personal, allowing us to collect crucial data on the biology of the species so that we can develop a better understanding of potential reasons for their decline. Our ultimate 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 individual of this species. The last sighting occurred in 2009 at Pinery Provincial Park in southwestern Ontario. That’s why we turned our attention to the closely related yellow-banded bumble bee. 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.
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 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 males, and then, finally, new queens. The males and new queens leave the colony to mate, and all but the new queens die off naturally: new fertilized queens will search for a place outside the colony to hibernate for the winter. These queens will then hopefully emerge to start colonies of their own in the spring.
Once we establish a self-sustaining population 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 has and continues to provide insights into threats facing wild populations, including impacts of pesticides, parasite levels, and changes in genetic variation.