Researchers abuzz as Utah bumblebee numbers rise

LOGAN, Utah (AP) — A mild winter and dry spring has been a boon for bumblebees in northern Utah.

The study of a three-year pattern of one species found a population of just 129 bees in the western United States, but now dozens have been spotted this spring in Logan alone, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture researcher Jamie Strange.

“It’s a cool thing to see them here,” Jonathan Koch, Strange’s research assistant, told the Deseret News of Salt Lake City this week. “This species, you don’t find out there anymore. … The fact that we’re seeing them in Logan is exciting; maybe there are pockets of them that are doing OK. It allows us to investigate more.”

That trend was one of the hot topics at Wednesday’s first-ever bumblebee workshop at Utah State University, where scientists gathered to discuss conservation techniques, threats and how to coax bumblebees into backyard gardens.

Pollinators such as bumblebees play a vital role in agriculture and forestry. But they face major threats, including disease and declines in genetic diversity, that make them less able to adapt to a changing environment.

In the U.S. alone, bumblebees, honeybees and even bats pollinate more than 150 different kinds of fruits, vegetables and nuts that provide a third of the nation’s food and beverages, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. That equates to $20 billion worth of products each year.

Utah State scientists, in corroboration with researchers from the University of Illinois, set out on a three-year, exploratory field trip to collect information from more than 300 sites.

They began their research just as the impacts of Colony Collapse Disorder on the honeybee population were beginning to garner national attention, spurring congressional hearings on how to save the insect.

May Berenbaum, the nation’s premier advocate on pollinating insects, testified before a House subcommittee that honeybees were valuable “six-legged livestock” for their ability to pollinate and produce honey and wax.

Despite that contribution, she said she was hard-pressed to find another agricultural enterprise so casually monitored.

Her research helped spearhead new initiatives to better document and protect honeybee populations.

Strange has been studying one form of bee or another for about 20 years, especially the bumblebee, and was excited by multiple sightings in Utah recently.

“It’s a pretty amazing year for flowers,” Strange said.

As the honeybee continues to face challenges, he said the agriculture industry is looking to other pollinators, notably the bumblebee or alfalfa leafcutter bee – the latter intensively managed for alfalfa pollination in states such as California and Washington.

“There’s been a greater recognition that other bees besides the honeybees can do some of those jobs,” Strange said. “Let’s diversify the portfolio of pollinators that we have in our crops.”

The workshop in Logan is one of many being conducted across the country as part of National Pollinator Week.

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