Here’s the buzz: Bumble bee now an endangered species

DOVER — It was announced earlier in January that the rusty patched bumblebee, Bombus affinis, was officially added to the endangered list.

The change represents the first species of bumble bee to be placed on the endangered species list in the United States.

It’s the first bee of any kind in the contiguous 48 states to receive the grim title.

The bumble bee was once common in 28 states in the Midwest, south and northeastern United States, but its numbers have been declining since at the least the 1990s, say researchers with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Rich Hatfield, senior conservation biologist with the International Union for Conservation of Nature said there isn’t a large amount of information available about the bumblebee presence in Delaware, but the state was probably in its native range. He quoted a 2008 population survey taken in Laurel, Maryland, just over the Chesapeake Bay, that didn’t have encouraging news.

First year beekeeper John Brown of Smyrna checking over his hive last May. (Submitted photo)

“In a sample of nearly 1,000 bumblebees on the Patuxent National Wildlife Refuge from 2002 to 2007, a single rusty patched bumblebee specimen was collected in 2002 and none have been collected since,” he said in an email. “The same researcher reports that rusty patched bumblebees were numerous in collections in the 1980s in areas near Patuxent National Wildlife Refuge north of Baltimore, Maryland and in northern Delaware.”

The window for the rusty patched bumblebee in Delaware may be closing, or already closed, but the important task of supporting bee populations and pollinators generally in the state is something that’s underway, but can use all the help it can get.

“The average citizen isn’t going to be able to do anything really substantial to bring back the rusty patched bumblebee,” said Dr. Faith Kuehn the plant industries administrator with the Delaware Department of Agriculture. “However, the average citizen can do a number of great things to help bees in the state in general.”

What’s happening in the state?

The number of different bee species in the state is a moving target, said Ms. Kuehn, one that is reliant on some guesswork.

“About 6 years ago, we received a grant to survey bee populations in Delaware and we restricted most of that study to heavy vine crop growing areas and state parks,” she said. “It covered 3 years of field work and found 123 different species of bees in the state — including the honey bee and a few more that weren’t native to Delaware. Based on that and studies that have been done in Maryland and Pennsylvania though, we estimate that the total number of bee species is probably closer to 250 or 300.”

The raw number of actual native, wild bees is near impossible to calculate, but nationwide this number has taken a beating in last few years primarily because of habitat loss, pesticides and parasites, said president of the Delaware Beekeepers Association, Kathleen Curran Hossler.

Honey bees cluster in hive as beekeeper prepares to harvest honey last September. (Submitted photo/Ronnie Mason)

“Even back when I was a kid, there used to be lots of feral colonies of bees they would be living in trees and they were just part of the environment,” said Ms. Hossler. “But after the introduction of a parasite called the Varroa Mites, the wild bee populations was decimated. In Delaware we have very few native populations. We’ve lost a lot of pollinators over the years.”

With that’s a troubling development as well, beekeepers throughout the state have been helping to prop those populations up for almost as long. Ms. Hossler said that their organization started back in the 1930s, and now has about 150 active members.

Since the state requires beekeepers to register their hives, Ms. Kuehn can keep track of these populations a bit more closely.

“That number is fluid as well since people add hives and split them throughout the year, but as of 2016 the official figures had about 1,600 registered hives throughout the state,” she said. “However, these are spread out among 200 total beekeepers — 75 percent of whom have five hives or less. The other 25 percent are mostly commercial beekeepers.”

Successfully built bee pasture on Dickerson Farm in Dover. Bee pastures and meadows are strategically planted plots that provide pollen and nectar from March to December. (Photo by Deanna Pillarelli)

Although keeping native “feral” bees alive and well in the state and supporting bee populations by “keeping” them are two distinct goals, Ms. Kuehn says both are important.

“The importance of honey bees to certain sectors of our state agriculture can’t be overstated,” she said. “Honey bees are a very effective pollinator and because we have production systems like large orchards, we need bees that are good transferring pollen. That’s not to say that there aren’t native pollinators that are just as effective, but many aren’t as adaptable to those kinds of a production systems.”

What is the state doing?

The Department of Agriculture is currently without a state apiarist (bee expert), but Ms. Kuehn said that they are conducting interviews and expect to hire one shortly. Nevertheless, the state has several different programs they run to improve the bees’ ecosystems.

“We received another grant for a project called Pollinator Health and Safety,” said Ms. Kuehn. “It’s a 3 year project to improve safeguarding systems so beekeepers and agriculture are working well together.”

Part of the program includes a free online service called BeeCheck. Beekeepers, farmers and aerial pesticide applicators are encouraged to use it to reduce overspray and pesticide drift which can be instantly toxic to nearby hives.

Ms. Kuehn also says that her department actively pursues projects to cultivate bee pastures on public and private land. In certain instances, she’s been able to set up strategically planted flower gardens in various locations throughout the state that prove to be exceptional food stores for local bees.

“One public project that was pretty successful was our one-acre urban farm and apiary on The Herman M. Holloway Health & Social Services Campus in New Castle,” she said. “We’ve also been doing a lot of sunflower and clover planting in Blackbird State Forest — both of which are great food sources for bees.”

The Department of Agriculture also feels that by promoting growth in commercial honey production will have the effect of protecting and increasing populations. In a feat of public and private cooperation, Ms. Hossler said that the beekeepers association worked with the state to get two military veterans in the state producing honey.

“We worked together to get a veteran up in New Castle two hives and the supplies to get started,” she said. “He has turned it into a business. He sells the honey and wax at farm stands and even sells bees now too. He’s doing well with it. The state is setting up another veteran right now in Blackbird State Forest too.”

What can you do?

Both Ms. Hossler and Ms. Kuehn agree that the ordinary citizen can do a lot to ease the plight of bees in the state at little to no cost.

•Managing your lawn

For those wanting to support bees but don’t want to make a large investment, some simple lawn management techniques can go a long way.

“A lot of people have a lot of lawn, but honestly it has zero value to a bee if it’s cut close and landscaped,” said Ms. Kuehn. “Sectioning off a portion to be a bee meadow can help bees a lot. Even if you just let weeds grow, because many of them flower and they’re useful food sources. Also, many native bees build hives underground too, so leaving a few bare patches of ground actually helps give them room to build.”

Of course, letting the lawn grow amok and ripping up bare patches may incite the anger of an Home Owners’ Association, even a small patch in the backyard can make a difference, she said. She also cautioned against using pesticides to treat other yard pests, because these are lethal to bees.

•Planting flowers

Possibly the most important and highest impact per dollar method of helping out bees in the state is simply planting flowers to help rebuilt bee habitat. Most flowers are good choices, but there are a few that are better than others and some to avoid entirely.

“Three annual flowers are particularly fabulous for bees: sunflowers, zinnias and marigolds,” said. Ms Kuehn. “Skip the pollen-less flowers though. Some seed varieties of sunflower had the pollen removed and while the puffball marigolds are pretty, they are useless to bees as well.”

The impact of planting flowers is redoubled when different shaped ones are used and they are strategically staggered to keep at least one flower in the garden blooming through the majority of the seasons.

“There are a lot of bee species and different shaped flowers, like coneflowers are better for certain anatomies – some bees have short tongues and others have long ones,” said Ms. Kuehn. “If you can keep flowers blooming from March to December, the bees will have a consistent food source as well. Some trees can also be great resources for bees because they have a lot of pollen and nectar. Tulip trees and our state tree the holly tree are good examples of this.”

She notes that it makes no difference to the bees if these flowers are planted in a planter on a deck, a window box or in the back yard.

Ms. Hossler point to the planting guides at pollinator.org as a good resource for strategic planting.

•Setting up a bee house

One doesn’t need to become a full beekeeper to supply a friendly environment for them. Setting up a bee house or nest (available online or from beekeeper supply stores) is a way to give a native swarm a comfortable place to live without having to actively manage them or purchase a queen.

“Installing a bee house will provide a good habitat for bees and it’s cheaper than a full hive,” said Ms. Hossler. “Sometimes they’ll just move in themselves when they’re scouting for a new location.”

•Become a beekeeper

The most expensive and hands on option for helping support local bees is purchasing a hive, associated supplies, the bees themselves and getting trained in the requisite techniques.

Luckily, the Delaware Beekeepers Association offers a fast track toward this goal. Ms. Hossler is encouraged by the recent bump in numbers they’ve seen in their beginner’s program.

“When I took my first class about 5 years ago there were less than 50 people in there,” she said. “We’re offering the same class now at Wesley College. Just recently we had to cut off a class at 75 attendees – we’re turning people away.”

The association trains its members and connects them with a mentor that can help them establish a hive and address early issues as they arise. The costs of setting up a hive can be considerable for someone just considering the hobby.

“The costs of the bees themselves runs about $150,” said Ms. Hossler. “You’d need to have a hive to put them in, and that can run you about $100 for a kit, plus you’ll need tools and supplies. All in, you’re looking at about $300 for an upfront investment.”

As far as the work that’s involved, much of what the bees do, they do on their own – but Ms. Hossler said that beekeepers need to check routinely for signs of disease and parasites.

“Most of the year you can get away with checking the hive once every two weeks,” she said. “This is mainly to ensure the queen is laying eggs and that there are no parasites. You’ll also need to watch for when it’s time to split the hive if you want to avoid swarming.”

Of course, the benefits of the practice are twofold: boosting the local bee populations and harvesting honey.

“It’s a great hobby, and even a good profession,” said Ms. Hossler. “Our membership ranges from farmers, retired doctors, college professors, people that work at the DMV and teachers. It’s great to be able to give your friends and neighbors some honey also.”

Staff writer Ian Gronau can be reached at 741-8272 or igronau@newszap.com

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