Bombus perplexus…And other bee befuddlement

What is your favorite bee species? Mine is the Confusing Bumble Bee, Bombus perplexus. But if you asked me a few years ago, I would have given you a blank (possibly perplexed) stare as I racked my brain for the name of any bee species.

I commonly hear the slogan “save the bees” (or maybe that is just me because I’m a biologist surrounded by other biologists…). But what does save the bees mean? Why do they need saving? And, are all bees the same?

A bumblebee in flight.
The Perplexing Bumble Bee. 📷 Melissa Penney

More Bees Than You Might BEE-lieve.

Before studying biology, I thought “bees are bees”, and I’m sure many people are in the same boat. When we hear “save the bees”, people probably imagine European honeybees and the sweet treats we harvest from them. In 2022, a shipment of millions of European honeybees died in transit to Alaska. It was a tragic loss. In all the media coverage of the incident it became clear to Alaskan scientists that, in general, people don’t realize the diversity of native bees we co-exist with in the state.

A collage of 4 bee photos. Top left is a confusing bumblebee photo taken by Benjamin MacLeod. Moving clockwise, the right is a solitary bee picture by Casey Burns. The next is a sweat bee picture by Matt Carlson. And lastly, an Andrena bee by Nigel Jones.
These are all bees.

There’s actually a huge variety of bees in the world, about 20,000 distinct species. Alaska is home to over 100 Bee Species. These species range from chubby bumble bees, to salt attracted sweat bees, to ground nesting mining bees, and wall building plaster bees.

Next time you see a bee buzzing from flower to flower, take a closer look and see if you notice any distinct characteristics. Is it large and fluffy? What color is its rump? Perhaps it’s the fuzzy, black-rumped Bombus perplexus, a friendly flyer that can be found from the northeastern United States to Alaska. Or maybe it’s just a confusing bumble bee not the Confusing Bumble Bee, which is just one of 22 bumble bee species found in Alaska.

Why Save the Bees?

We ❤ diverse and abundant bee populations because they play a very important role in food security. Many everyday foods require pollination: blueberries, apples, avocados, tomatoes… even chocolate! Bees are for everyone. From the bears to the birds to the people, Alaska depends on the services provided by native pollinators.

Bees help feed everyone. 📷 USFWS

While honeybees play an important role in pollinating fruits and veggies, our native pollinators are essential. Scientists recently discovered that wild, native insect pollinators are more effective at pollinating crops than European honeybees. Data showed that an increase in wild insect pollinator visits enhanced fruit set (the first stage in fruit development) twice as much as visits by European honeybees. More native bees and insects = more food.

Two insects sit on a purple chive flower.
Look closely, there are two pollinators in this picture. 📷 Tim Craig, BLM

BEE-yond Bees.

It’s confusing because…it’s not just about bees. Though the popular slogan says “save the bees”, they aren’t the only pollinators in need of help. Flies, butterflies, and moths are all valuable pollinators. The save the bees campaign is playing into a much larger issue. Around the world, many important insect populations are in decline and scientists are so concerned that they started calling it the “Insect Apocalypse”.

A collage of four different insect pollinators. From the top left going clockwise: a flower fly, a mosquito, a butterfly, and an unidentified insect.
Insect pollinators of Alaska. 📷 Derek Sikes

Scientists from different parts of the world (Germany, Puerto Rico, California, and more) have seen a large decline in insect populations in the past few decades. A variety of causes are likely at play: habitat loss, exposure to pesticides, and climate change are a few of the big ones. Though we want to save the bees, we also want to ensure we’re supporting all our insect friends through these challenges.

Alaska, We Are BEE-hind.

The story of the Confusing Bumble Bee (named because it is challenging to identify and scientists don’t know much about it) is the same as many of Alaska’s pollinator species. We lack in depth information about their presence, numbers, and locations.

This lack of information makes it challenging to know which species are doing well and which are at risk and may be experiencing population declines. Through surveys and studies of various locations, scientists aim to better understand Alaska’s insect pollinators and their needs. Learn more.

McCay’s bumble bee pollinates a Sitka burnet flower.
McKay’s Bumble Bee is a species USFWS is currently studying. 📷 Syd Canning

You Can BEE Helpful

Though we don’t know as much as we want about Alaska’s bees and other insect pollinators, we do know actions you can take to help them:

Even after summer ends, your yard can be home to overwintering pollinators.

And remember, it’s okay to be confused. We are too.

Story written by Sabrina Farmer, Ecological Services Biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and edited by Melissa Burns, Proactive Conservation Coordinator. Sabrina and Melissa are members of the Alaska Pollinator Coordination Group which aims to raise awareness of, and address, pollinator conservation needs across the state.

In Alaska we are shared stewards of world renowned natural resources and our nation’s last true wild places. Our hope is that each generation has the opportunity to live with, live from, discover and enjoy the wildness of this awe-inspiring land and the people who love and depend on it.

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