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WSU Researchers Collaborating With Feds In Effort To Bring Back Bumblebees

Megan Asche
Preparing to inseminate a queen bee.

Some scientists are going to great lengths to help the agreeable Western bumblebee make a comeback.

You might not have noticed, but this important pollinator of both flowers and greenhouse crops has nearly disappeared from the landscape. An introduced fungal disease is suspected of decimating populations of the fat and furry Western bumblebee (Bombus occidentalis).

Researchers with the U.S. Department of Agriculture have identified some surviving colonies that show disease tolerance. Now a federal bee lab in Utah is collaborating with experts at Washington State University to reestablish the native pollinator. USDA entomologist Jamie Strange is leading a captive breeding project to improve stock fitness. That even includes artificial insemination of the small insects.

Credit Megan Asche
This is how a bumble bee queen is marked for selective breeding.

"We have this instrumental insemination that we're working on developing at this point," Strange said. "It is still in its infancy, but we hope that we can actually remove sperm from the males and then inject it into the females like they do with certain honeybee-breeding programs."

Strange says commercial pollination companies that truck bee colonies from farm to farm are eager for him to succeed. 

"As honeybees become more limited and more expensive, they're looking for alternatives. We're here to help them,” Strange said. "Growers are interested in using bumblebees to supplement pollination in berry crops, orchards and other places."

"When you have both honeybees and wild bees present, you have improved yields from both working together," said collaborating entomologist Steve Sheppard at WSU during a phone interview. "There are certain crops where bumblebees are much better [pollinators].”

Sheppard notes British Columbia's large industry of hot house tomato growers relies on non-native bumblebees for pollination. He says honeybees, if released in a glass house, typically fly to the ceiling. In any event, sooner or later, either species tends to get out.

"If Jamie can develop a regionally more appropriate species ... there could be a lot of interest to use it in Western states," Sheppard said. "[Non-native imports] could displace or harm native bumblebees. That's the logic to not take a species that does not occur in West and put in glass houses."

Some states, including Oregon, do not even allow the import of non-native bumblebees to minimize the risk of unleashing disease or unwanted competition with native species.

Bumblebees and honeybees can be fairly easily distinguished. Bumblebees are fat and furry. The smaller, slimmer honeybee more closely resembles a wasp. Honeybees live in large hives, while bumblebees tend to cluster in smaller nests which do not produce surplus honey.

Correspondent Tom Banse is an Olympia-based reporter with more than three decades of experience covering Washington and Oregon state government, public policy, business and breaking news stories. Most of his career was spent with public radio's Northwest News Network, but now in semi-retirement his work is appearing on other outlets.