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Wild Bumblebees in Danger

January 27, 2010

Rusty-patched bumblebee (Bombus affinus) on Monarda sp. Photo by Johanna James-Heinz at

Throughout the spring, summer, and fall of 2009, in both New York and Virginia, I witnessed dying bumblebee after dying bumblebee: on sidewalks, in the grass, on automobiles — everywhere.  Friends reported seeing the same thing, and regularly asked me, What’s happening to the bumblebees?

We may now know: wild bumblebees may be falling prey to diseases spread from commercially-raised bumblebees which are employed in greenhouses for pollination of crops like hothouse tomatoes, peppers, and strawberries.

Commercially-raised bumblebees are actually a native American species (Bombus impatiens) that was exported to Europe and is now reared at two European facilities (here and here), then imported to the United States for agricultural use.

It is thought that some commercially-raised bumblebees carry diseases picked up from European relatives.  When the commercially-raised bumblebees are put to work pollinating greenhouse crops in the U.S., they often escape the greenhouses and come into contact with — and potentially spread infection to — wild native bumblebees, which have little resistance to the European diseases.  Any infected native bees that are then moved within the U.S. serve to spread the disease further.

(Aside: Why are we outsourcing the rearing of native American bees to European countries?  This just seems… strange.  And typical of these times.)

At least four species of wild American bumblebees are edging toward extinction: the Franklin’s bumblebee (Bombus franklini) and Western bumblebee (Bombus occidentalis) in the Western US, and the rusty-patched bumblebee (Bombus affinis) and yellow-banded bumblebee (Bombus terricola) in the Eastern US.

Wildlife conservation groups are calling for new regulations on commercially-reared bumblebees:

The Xerces Society, the Defenders of Wildlife and the Natural Resources Defense Council have asked the Agriculture Department’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service to block the movement of commercially raised bees outside their native ranges, and to require bee rearers, through permits, to show that their insects are disease-free. A spokesman said the agency is reviewing the request. (Adrian Higgins, Washington Post, January 13,2010)

Sad, sad times for bees of all stripes, my friends.

But kudos and thanks to the Xerces Society and others for drawing the attention of the government and the public to this issue!

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Chris permalink
    May 3, 2010 2:51 am


    Just found your wonderful site. I have been following the collapse of our precious pollinators for five years now, so it is always encouraging to find sources such as yourself that are working closely with these issues. It is especially comforting, as I usually do not find much conversation in the real world when it comes to CCD and the immensely complicated realm of pollination and our human appreciation for these blessings of Nature.

    I look forward to reading more here!

  2. biosparite permalink
    May 5, 2010 11:57 pm

    It has been a long time since I saw a bumblebee in urban Houston, and I do look for them. Plenty of carpenter bees, which most people mistake for Bombus sp. In late March I joined a colleague for dinner in San Jose, CA, and she was surprised at my delight in seeing a bumblebee nectaring as we walked around after dinner in the Japan Town section.

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