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‘The Flight Of The Bumble Bee’

Help save the rusty patched bumble bee

April 2023

by Priscilla Knight, Contributing Columnist

A queen wakes up in spring after a long winter nap. After finding a place to call home, and enjoying a breakfast of flower nectar and pollen, she starts laying eggs, which will turn into bumble bees. Worker “rusty patched” bumbles hatch first. They build a colony, collect food, care for the young, and defend the colony while the queen continues to lay eggs. In summer, males leave the colony to mate with other queens. All colony members die in autumn, except for new queens. After sleeping through winter, they start the next bumble bee cycle in spring.

When composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov wrote “Flight of the Bumblebee” in 1900, he probably didn’t think that some of the 25,000 species of bees might take a flight toward extinction. Unfortunately, some have. In 2017, the rusty patched bumble bee became the first wild bee in the continental states to land on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s endangered species list. The Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources says the population of the bee that once thrived in the East, upper Midwest, and Southeastern Canada has declined “an estimated 87%” in the past 20 years.


Queens are “rust” free.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says bumble bees are “keystone species in most ecosystems” for reproducing food. “Bumble bees are among the most important pollinators of crops such as blueberries, cranberries and clover and almost the only insect pollinators of tomatoes. Bumble bees are more effective pollinators than honey bees for some crops because of their ability to ‘buzz pollinate.’ The economic value of pollination services provided by native insects (mostly bees) is estimated at $3 billion per year in the United States.”

Tom Melius, the Service’s Midwest regional director, says, “Pollinators are small but mighty parts of the natural mechanism that sustains us and our world. Without them, our forests, parks, meadows and shrublands, and the abundant, vibrant life they support, cannot survive.”


Not just bumbles are in danger. Melittologists —entomologists who study bees—do not know exactly what is harming bee species, but savebees.org and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service suspect habitat loss and degradation, pesticide poisoning, diseases and parasites, non-native and managed bees, and climate change. According to savebees.org, “Many of our bees are sick, stressed and undernourished.”


The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service finalized a recovery plan for the rusty patched bumble bee in 2021.ThThe plan includes: surveys and monitoring, conservation planning, research, habitat management and enhancement, as well as outreach. The service is working with the North American Pollinator Protection Campaign, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, citizens, and other partners to protect endangered pollinators.

The Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources is working on improving pollinator habitat at our wildlife management areas and lakes on private lands throughout the state.


Fortunately, anyone with a garden, deck, patio, or balcony can help native bees flourish. U.S. and Virginia wildlife agencies and other conservation groups suggest the following:

Plant flowering trees, shrubs and flowers. Apple, pear, and cherry trees provide excellent pollinator food. Choose native flowers that bloom at different times of the year to nourish different bee species.

Plant or preserve natives. Asters, bee balm, purple coneflower, cosmos, lavender, hollyhocks, honeysuckle, mint, pussy willows, salvia, and sunflowers provide vital pollen and nectar.

Provide natural landscapes. Many bumbles build nests in undisturbed soil and grass clumps. Keep an area in your yard or community natural. Plowing down forests and wildflower meadows to build urban and suburban developments is leaving “pollinator deserts.”

Provide water. Bees need water. Provide a shallow dish of water and pebbles, which help bees drink without drowning.

Minimize pesticides and chemical fertilizers. Neonicotinoid chemicals used on a wide variety of crops and grass could be killing bees or making them more prone to diseases and parasites. The Natural Resources Defense

Council says these pesticides “kill indiscriminately, exterminating not only ‘pest’ insects, but also countless butterflies, bees, and other wildlife. Since their introduction, neonics have made U.S. agriculture nearly 50 times more harmful to insect life.” The European Union and several U.S. states have banned outdoor use of three major neonicotinoids. Instead of using pesticides, be like a royal “queen bee:” Queen Elizabeth insisted her gardeners spray garlic-infused water instead of pesticides on her roses at Buckingham Palace.

Buy local produce from organic farms. Fruits, vegetables and honey from local farms support organic agriculture and biodiversity.

Participate in citizen-science pollinator projects. Get the family involved to plant wildflowers and record bee sightings.

For more, visit fws.gov, savebees.org, and dwr.virginia.gov/wildlife/information/rusty-patched-bumble-bee.