WPC Project

Bumble Bee Recovery

Species Status: Endangered in Canada


The yellow-banded bumble bee (Bombus terricola), the rusty-patched bumble bee (Bombus affinis), and the western bumble bee (Bombus occidentalis) were all once some of the most common bumble bee species within their ranges in Canada.

All three species are closely related – they belong to the same subgenus Bombus sensu stricto. Unfortunately, their numbers have all been declining rapidly since the mid-1990s. All three species have been assessed by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) to be in decline. In 2010, the rusty-patched bumble bee was assessed as Endangered in 2014, the western bumble bee subspecies occidentalis was assessed as Threatened – and in 2015, the yellow-banded bumble bee was assessed as of Special Concern.

With the last sighting of the rusty-patched bumble bee in 2009, it is more important than ever to understand our native bee species.

Monitoring for all species of bumble bee through our field surveys in Ontario (especially at risk or rare species), we are currently working with 3 specific bumbles in our lab. These bumble bees include the less common yellow-banded bumble bee, and the more common tri-coloured and brown belted bumble bees. These common species allow us to better understand bumble breeding, creating a framework to follow if we ever have the chance to work with the rusty-patched bumble bee, and provide critical, shareable information for future bumble bee recovery needs.

To learn more about the yellow-banded bumble bee, visit our species page.

What is the Bumble Bee Recovery project?

Since the 1990s, bumble bee numbers have been plummeting, and that spells ecological disaster. Ninety per cent of all flowering plants — including most of the fruits and vegetables in your fridge — need these pollinators in order to reproduce.

Until the causes of these declines can be reversed, conservation breeding and reintroduction is the only way to safeguard at-risk bumble bees. Today, WPC is the only organization in Canada rebuilding wild bee populations through captive breeding. Thanks to recent breakthroughs, we’ve figured out how to dramatically increase the number of queens we produce. Once they’re released into the wild, they can establish their own colonies, producing hundreds of pollinators to sustain the ecosystems around them.


We work to prevent native bee species from disappearing by building self-sustaining populations in Canada, studying the various bee species to learn more about the threats they face, and create opportunities for community involvement.


In 2023 we plan to have:

  • 60 bumble bee colonies established in the conservation lab
  • Produced 300 captive bred queens for overwintering
  • 17 sites across southern and central Ontario monitored for bumble bee population declines


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.

To improve our understanding of bumble bee populations in Ontario, our staff conduct surveys of bumble bees all throughout the province – ranging from our southernmost sites in Norfolk County all the way up north to areas surrounding Thunder Bay.

We target historic and current locations of at-risk bumble bees to track the health of local populations over time, but we also look to expand our survey coverage every year in the hopes of locating new populations of these rare bumble bees. Though our target species include the yellow-banded and rusty-patched bumble bees in Ontario, we also work to monitor populations of other species that appear to be in decline, including the gypsy cuckoo bumble bee (Bombus bohemicus), the American bumble bee (Bombus pensylvanicus), and the yellow bumble bee (Bombus fervidus).

From our surveys, conducted since 2013, we have observed that yellow-banded bumble bee populations appear to be more abundant further north in the province. Beginning in 2018, during intensive spring surveys both to collect yellow-banded bumble bee queens for conservation breeding and to monitor bumble bee biodiversity, we manage additional regional field crews to increase our survey coverage in these critical areas. Our main field crew works out of Guelph, and we have now added a spring crew based in Sudbury, and one based in Thunder Bay. With the help of additional staff, we hope to continue to collect baseline information on both populations that appear to be thriving (those north of Lake Superior) and populations that may be declining (certain southern populations) so that we can assess within which areas the yellow-banded bumble bee may become more critically threatened, in real time.

In 2014, we launched BumbleBeeWatch.org in collaboration with several partners. This website allows community 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.

Starting in 2015, we have also developed and implemented an ever-expanding Bumble Bee Watch community science hands-on survey training program. This survey program engages the community in bumble bee conservation by teaching them the same survey techniques that professional researchers use, and provides them with the equipment and know-how to independently monitor native bumble bees within our targeted locations throughout the summer months. The first program WPC developed takes place every year at Pinery Provincial Park near Grand Bend, Ontario, selected as it is the last known location of the rusty-patched bumble bee. Since then, we have expanded to host programs at multiple other locations in Ontario with known observations of species at risk, as well as a program at Glenbow Ranch Provincial Park near Calgary, Alberta: a known location of the western bumble bee. Thanks to the dedicated efforts of our trained community scientists, we have been able to record multiple additional observations of rare and at-risk species at these sites.

In 2019, we expanded our BumbleBeeWatch.org volunteer community science program by engaging additional volunteers through our Train-the-Trainer program, which was first implemented in 2018. This program provides a one-day course and support throughout the bumble bee season for organizations and landowners who are interested in running their own volunteer-based programs using Bumble Bee Watch. Through this multi-leveled instruction program, we hope to expand search efforts across the country, growing our organizational capacity for training citizen scientists to locate and identify native bumble bees. If you are interested in launching a volunteer survey project in your area, please contact us.

In 2020, our community science and educational programs were put on hold in accordance with pandemic safety restrictions. WPC staff, along with a few dedicated volunteers, submitted 440 species-specific bumble bee records to Bumble Bee Watch collected through weekly surveys at Pinery Provincial Park. By attending virtual conferences and delivering educational content online, we maintained an active position in the pollinator community in Canada and abroad.

The use of bumble bee colony nest boxes (sometimes referred to as artificial domiciles) to obtain or relocate colonies of bumble bees for research and crop pollination has been a common technique used by academics, mainly in western Canada and New Zealand. However, their potential use in conservation and for monitoring at-risk species is highly understudied. Since bumble bee nests are usually quite cryptic – most of us haven’t even encountered one unless they decided to nest in one of your abandoned bird boxes or under your deck! – using artificial boxes to study bumble bee colony growth and development in the field is a great alternative to trying to search for natural nesting sites. With minimal work done to-date on occupancy success for colony boxes in Ontario, and a lack of evaluation of their ability to help with data collection on bumble bee biology and distributions across Canada, we saw an opening!

Starting in 2017, we began a pilot project investigating the use of artificial nest boxes for conservation in locations specifically selected for historic observations of our target at-risk bumble bee species. Through a project led by a graduate student at the University of Guelph, we are analyzing results from 400 nest boxes that were installed at multiple sites across Ontario.

WPC participated in a conservation planning workshop for the rusty patched bumble bee, one of North America’s most threatened pollinators and one of WPC’s focal species.  The workshop brought together a wide range of global bee conservation experts to evaluate and recommend conservation breeding and other ex situ strategies to complement existing recovery strategies in the wild for this endangered species.  The report highlights the critical importance of WPC’s leading efforts to develop conservation breeding techniques for threatened bumble bees.

Rusty Patched Bumble Bee (Bombus affinis) Ex Situ Assessment and Planning Workshop: FINAL REPORT

Some of our current bumble bee projects:

Bumble Bee Conservation Lab

Bumble Bee Community Science

Bees on Board

We need your help

Donate to save at-risk species
like the yellow-banded bumble bee

Some great resources about bumble bee conservation

WPC hosts Dr. Laurence Packer to discuss bee diversity. Dr. Packer is a professor at York University and a world expert on wild bees. He also manages a world class bee collection – with over 500,000 bee specimens from all over the world.

Bumble Bee ID Cards & Posters

We have created some helpful ID cards and posters for some regions in Canada. Download to your phone or to save and print at home.

Stay in touch

Sign up for THE BUMBLE BUZZ newsletter

Project Staff

Taylor Kerekes

Lead Biologist

Taylor joined the Native Pollinator Initiative in June 2023 and manages the native pollinator recovery program across Canada. Taylor was introduced to the world of bees during her BSc in Biology at York University. She is currently wrapping up her MSc at York University which focused on bumble bee abundance, diversity, and floral use. With this knowledge she hopes to continue to support pollinator conservation across Canada.

Thank you to those who make this work possible

  • Alberta Ecotrust
  • BE Power Equipment
  • Bonterra Organic Wines
  • Burt’s Bees
  • Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry- Species at Risk Stewardship Fund and Species at Risk Research Fund
  • The Rogers Foundation
  • The Schad Foundation
  • TPH