In search of bumblebees

May 20, 2014
Local writer Katie Eberhart goes looking for bumblebees in Central Oregon after learning about the plight of pollinators at our Nature Night on Attracting Native Pollinators.

By Katie Eberhart

Easter Sunday and two days before Earth Day, we set off on an in-town hunt for bumblebees even though the afternoon was cool and breezy. I carried a bottle of water and a camera. Chuck had binoculars. Within the first half block, we sidled between parked cars and a tall Oregon grape, peering at the hand-sized clusters of yellow blooms but seeing only honeybees and flies.

A few days earlier, we went to a presentation about native pollinators and were reminded — as summer approached — about bees, especially bumblebees. The speaker, Mace Vaughn, featured at one of the Deschutes Land Trust’s Nature Night presentations, talked about the important role bumblebees have pollinating native plants. Pollination helps with seed production, part of the process that we appreciated in spring 2012 as Arrowleaf balsamroot and lupine on The Dalles Mountain above the Columbia River.

We walked on a dozen blocks where we discovered a narrow strip of dry land surrounded by streets. Crossing into the wild island, we walked a gravel path between silver-gray sagebrush and tall currants with clusters of blooms as yellow as lemon rind.

Anytime I hear buzzing around my feet, I’m certain that next I’ll be surrounded by a cloud of angry wasps. Other times, though, the buzzing is softer and less insistent with bees Iooping around a few blossoms. I go closer, quietly spotting the bloom with a bee.

The golden currant in the “pocket” park was like this, with a calm humming. However, the bumblebee we saw wasn’t like the slow-moving bees in early spring in Alaska when it was still cold and only pasque flowers, buttercups, and bergenia bloomed. Those bumblebees crawled as if exhausted after such a long winter and it seemed you had all the time you needed to focus your camera and take a picture.

Standing beside the golden currant, I pointed my camera toward a flower with a bumblebee except, by the time I clicked the shutter, the bee was gone. It was as if there were two kinds of time, my slow human time and a speeded-up, fast-forward, insect time. I stood, clicking the camera shutter, hoping the auto-focus would focus on a bumblebee, until my patience was exhausted and we continued on toward the river.

Bumblebees have a tough go of it. The queens overwinter beneath leaves or dug into little burrows. In the spring, they emerge to feed, find a nest site, and lay eggs.
Mace Vaughn said that disease is one cause of the disappearance of bumblebees. The result is fewer bumblebee colonies so there is less genetic diversity. Other factors contributing to the bumblebee decline include fragmented habitat, competition with honeybees, and chemicals.

Chuck and I crossed the Deschutes on the Galveston Street Bridge. We walked south through neighborhoods, stopping at each blooming tree to look for bumblebees but we only saw honeybees. I like honeybees, but now think about them differently after Mace Vaughn’s talk. Vaughn explained that honeybees compete with bumblebees and other native pollinators. He said that, in town, having bee hives is like raising chickens–that chickens are not the same as wild fowl and honeybees are different from native pollinators.
(Of course, beekeeping is also a business and honeybees are essential for pollinating fruit and other crops.)

When we reached Miller’s Landing, a riverside park, passing the area fenced off for osprey nesting but where no ospreys nest, where the ground slopes upward to rocks with buildings on top, we stopped to watch a honeybee crisscrossing a large dandelion then noticed a black and pale-yellow insect zooming along the base of the cliff. I climbed over the rocks to get a closer look, hoping my camera would focus on what I thought must be a bumblebee. The insect zipped away at ground level, then returned and landed beside a tangle of stalks. I hoped it was a queen bumblebee searching for a nest site.

We lost sight of the bumblebee, only the second one we’d seen that afternoon, and so we walked on, along the river, our stomachs suggesting lunch was overdue. Despite looking, we saw no more bumblebees, but it’s hard to know whether few bumblebees survive in town or if our timing was poor and another warmer day might have yielded better results.

Read this post, complete with photos, on Katie's Blog.


Mace Vaughn is an entomologist with the Xerces Society.

My previous post on honeybees was Reading Sylvia Plath’s poem “The Arrival Of The Bee Box”

There’s a web site, Bumblebee Watch, where you can send your photos of bumblebees, to help with the citizen science effort to track and monitor bumblebee populations.

Xerces Society Pollination Conservation Resource Center

Xerces Society Pacific Northwest Region