Saving Native Bumble Bees

In February 2020, a group of bumble bee biologist and conservation professionals gathered at the Minnesota Zoo, in Minneapolis, to work on conservation strategies related to the endangered Rusty Patched Bumble Bee (Bombus affinis).  The meeting, sponsored by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, The Ohio State University, and the MN Zoo, was to discuss if ex situ conservation strategies could be employed to aid in population recovery in the future.  In November 2020 the final report from that meeting was released, facilitated by Kathy Traylor-Holzer of the IUCN SSC Conservation Planning Specialist Group.

Ex situ conservation involves the removal of individual organism from the wild, either for short term activities such as translocation and “rescue” activities, or for longer term programs like captive breeding.  To be sure, ex situ conservation strategies are not a panacea and should be approached carefully and thoughtfully.  At the Minnesota Zoo meeting we met for three days and through a structured workshop, we proposed and considered numerous ideas that had potential as ex situ conservation strategies.  Not all of the strategies we considered came out equal in the end and several are considered risky, or unlikely to create enough benefit toward species recovery to really implement.  Several other strategies have potential.

In the report we discuss some of the benefits of ex situ conservation beyond simply increasing population numbers and that is what I want to cover here.  The particular strategy that I want to explore here for bumble bees is captive rearing of colonies, which I have done a lot of over the years with both common and at-risk species.  While I have never raised colonies of RPBB (Elaine Evans is the only person I know of who has) I think this strategy can teach us a lot.  By rearing colonies in captivity, we have the potential to both increase a population for release, but we also can learn more about the species- its disease stress, nutritional needs, and mating biology, among other aspects of its biology.

Captive rearing colonies

To rear a colony in captivity you have to first catch a queen bumble bee in the wild and bring it into the lab.  Bumble bees need a steady diet of pollen and sugar solution and a warm, dark and quiet location to initiate nesting.  There are many techniques to induce a queen bumble bee to nest in captivity and if the conditions are right the queen will lay a clutch of eggs on a pollen lump and incubate them until they hatch into larvae.  At that point she will incubate them further and feed them more pollen for a couple weeks until they pupate.  For most species of bumble bees about 24 days after egg laying a worker bee will emerge as and adult.  In the lab humans have to provide a steady stream of food as the colony grows and after a few months new queens and males will be produced if the conditions remain good.  Once this happens queens and males are isolated with reproductive individuals from other colonies and allowed to mate before they can be released back into the wild. In some cases, you might choose to keep some of the mated queens in cold storage over the winter and have them establish colonies of their own the next year.

During the colony growth phase, you can learn a lot about the bees, such as how quickly the nest grows, how much they eat, and which diseases they are susceptible to.  There is, of course, a risk that the colonies will not initiate in captivity, or that reproductive output in the lab might be less than the wild, but even these failures can be instructive.  Understanding the conditions that lead to either success or failure of reproduction in the lab can inform management strategies in in field settings as well.

One of the most persistent questions around RPBB recovery is discovering exactly what led to the declines in the first place.  A widely circulated hypothesis is that a pathogen (Nosema bombi) from commercially managed bumble bees spilled over into the wild RPBB populations leading to declines across the range of the species.  While this may be the cause, it has never been definitively shown and the impacts of N. bombi on B. affinis has never been studies.  If ex situ populations can be established, we could investigate the relationship between this pathogen and RPBB either through observing opportunistic infections or through direct experimentation.  Further, impacts of other factors such as diet or climate conditions could be observed in the lab in controlled experiments and provide insights into the decline.

Of course, other strategies are considered in the report and have merit, including translocating queens or male bumble bees to augment wild populations with new genetic material or to reintroduce RPBB in areas where it has been extirpated.  As the report notes, there are many considerations including developing methods to ensure that bees taken into captivity are disease free and that release of captive bees does not move pathogens or parasites to new locations.

A rusty patched bumble bee. Photo credit Tamara Smith, USFWS

This report can help inform the decisions that federal and state agencies make to try to recover RPBB populations.  My hope is that the Strange Lab can continue to contribute to recovery efforts for this species in Ohio and beyond.