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Bumble On: Why we need bumblebees

the buzz on bees isn't goodOK, people, listen up! Bees are our friends! Especially bumblebees. Got that? Without those big, scary-looking black and yellow (some



the buzz on bees isn't goodOK, people, listen up! Bees are our friends! Especially bumblebees. Got that? Without those big, scary-looking black and yellow (some orange) buzzers, almost every flowering plant in Central Oregon would have trouble making seeds for new plants.

Yes, soil, water and sunlight are what it takes to keep plants going, but without bumblebees (and other pollinators) plants could not reproduce their kind. So, the next time you have a bumblebee buzzing around your backyard please don't try to kill it, say "thank you," instead.

Bees, and a long list of other insects, depend on flowers to make a living. Commercial beekeepers travel thousands of miles in the spring hauling millions of bees back and forth between California and Canada pollinating everything from celery to peaches to ensure bigger seed crops and better fruit yield.

The current problems bees are facing from Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) is costing the fruit industry millions of dollars, which is passed down to the consumer. In the event that you haven't got that picture clearly, "consumers" are you and me. As a beekeeper, I have watched helplessly as colony after colony of my bees collapsed with no apparent reason. One day the bees are there, the next day they're gone, or dead.

In another two or three weeks momma bumble bees will be chewing their way out of the wax hibernaculum they sealed themselves into to sleep over winter. It is, incidentally, impossible for a bumblebee to freeze to death as its "blood" (which is nothing like our hemoglobin-based stuff) has a powerful anti-freeze ingredient. The colder it gets the better the "anti-freeze."

The first bumblebees you see in the spring are future mothers; the males do not survive winter. The last thing the males accomplished last summer was to impregnate the females with enough sperm to make certain that her first batch of eggs will be fertile.

Nature programmed the winter survivors to quickly locate a home site and begin digging it out, and be sure it's located next to plenty of flowering plants. The bees will require nectar that will help her colony to grow and eventually produce her replacements. Serious problems, however, are facing her and her sibling sisters and husbands, to whit...

A few weeks back, I shared some thoughts with you about the role of ladybugs in pest-control, and how a few commercial ladybug dealers are screwing up the ladybug's world. Well, it turns out some commercial bumblebee dealers are doing the same thing. They are selling diseased bumblebees, perhaps unknowingly, but the consequences are killing off their wild cousins.

In the 1980s, bee scientists noticed a decline in the abundance and distribution of several common bumblebee species across the U.S. Among them was the Western Bumblebee, Bombus occidentalis, Rusty-patched, B. affins, and Brown-tipped Bumblebee, B. terricola. One of our local crop pollinators, Franklin's BumbleBee, B. franklini, may already be extinct.

"Extinct," in the event you don't understand that term clearly, means "gone permanently," an animal or plant that has vanished from the face of the Earth - forever. The ramifications of the extinction of bumblebees are completely unknown to science, which is bad enough, but for those of us who treasure all living things, it is a moral dilemma of immense proportions. Extinction is no laughing matter.

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out why there is only a tiny handful of men and women in the entire United State who have any background data on bumblebees. Would you encourage your kid to take on four to six years of college to become an expert on bumblebees? No. I wouldn't either and I'm supposed to know better.

There are, however, at least two people who may have the answer as to what is happening to bumblebees. More than 30 years ago - when most of you newcomers to Bend were just a gleam in your daddy's eye - Dr. David Inouye and Dr. Graham Pyke were undergraduates at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory (RMBL). They were investigating the altitudinal distribution of bumblebees, spanning areas of about 1,500 vertical feet. Dr. Inouye asked Dr. Pyke to leave his present position in Australia and return to the RMBL to continue their work on bumblebees.

They are locating their 30-plus-year-old study transects to get a better understanding of what is happening to our bumblebees. In other locations of the U.S., scientists have found that not only are bumblebees dying out, but also moving to higher altitudes in response to global warming.

What all this all boils down to, Dear Readers, is that here in Central Oregon, we can expect additional biological problems to develop as our bumblebees - and God only knows how many other pollinators - die off. If (when) they perish from alien diseases, leave us for high climes or otherwise stop doing what they have been doing for the last few million years, it will be bad news. It may not seem important to the average man on the street, but bees of all kinds have been helping to make Earth a healthy place for us Homo Sapiens to live. I shudder to think what we'll do without them.

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