Tracking the Bumblebee in Massachusetts
with Dr Rob Gegear
Contributed by Jean O’Neil, Master Gardener
On the good news side, the Bombus genus with all its furry members has a strong advocate in the person of Dr. Robert Gegear, a researcher at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI). In addition to current censuses and analysis of historical data, he observes bumblebees with emphasis on their brains and behavior related to foraging. He looks at questions such as how does a bee decide if a patch of flowers will provide the nutrients it needs? How does a bee change its behavior when flower composition changes? Can bees and their behavior change plant community composition and complexity?
One of the summer delights of many gardeners is walking among flowers and hearing the buzz of bees. Even more delight can occur if we look closely at each bee and see who it is, what plants it is visiting, and the structure of those plants. The bee may be collecting pollen or nectar, depending on season and colony needs. The bee does not know that it is applying neurecology to its life choices!
We may not know that bees are specialized in part because of the length of their tongue. In Massachusetts, our current 11 native species include 3 with short tongues, 3 with medium tongues, and 5 with long tongues. The long-tongued species do best with tubular flowers, the short-tongued bees with short flowers like composites. Other forms of specialization are a preference for certain plant species based on bee body size or flower color, or for a foraging location. Our knowledge of these specializations is still incomplete but growing.
An exciting and positive activity for gardeners is to contribute data via crowd-sourcing! The Bee-ecology Project from WPI allows citizen gardeners to collect data on bees and send it to their database for analysis. If you have access to an Android phone, go to http://beecology.wpi.edu/index.html to download an app. This lets you walk among the buzzes in your yard, take a video of the quick-moving bees, isolate a good image so you can identify the bee and its flower, then send the data to WPI. The app includes easy questions to help in identification; for instance, how much black is on the abdomen, is there any orange on the abdomen, are there any spots on the thorax? Images are available to illustrate the questions. This can take just a few minutes of your time, help you learn, and really help the state-wide status of our native bees.
Dr. Gegear and his co-workers have found that bumblebees have been declining in abundance and species representation for some time, to a dangerous level. Stresses on our native bees such as pesticides, habitat loss (both quality and quantity), and invasive plant species, can be somewhat remedied by our actions, certainly in our own yards and gardens. We can reduce or remove pesticides and other chemicals from our gardening practices and remove invasive flowering plant species. Acting to provide good bee habitat leads us to providing a large diversity of plants based on flower structure, nectar and/or pollen content, color, and bloom time, and to keeping nesting and over-wintering habitat.
Click here for a list of recommended native plants for bumblebees provided by WPI.
The third 2017 issue of Massachusetts Wildlife (vol 67 no, 3) had a good article on Dr. Gegear’s work and its importance. You can also read more at http://users.wpi.edu/~rgegear/Home.html. Go watch bees!!