A bee that's feared to be on the fast track to extinction, and one not seen on the east coast of the United States in five years, has been found by a research team while surveying bees in Sky Meadows State Park in Delaplane, Va.
The rusty-patch bumble bee has disappeared from 87% of its upper midwest and eastern seabord regions. But now a Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute team has found exactly one individual of the species.
"We thought this bumble bee was extinct in this region," said team co-leader Bill McShea in a release. "Finding one bee, well this is the stuff conservationists live for."
McShea and his team were surveying bee populations among 17 sites in Virginia between May and August, to learn more about how land management affects bee diversity, when they came across the bumble bee they'd given up hope of seeing anytime soon, or perhaps ever.
Worker rusty-patch bumble bees have a rust-colored patch located on their second abdominal segment. Once common, the exact cause for their decline is not known, although an accidentally introduced European fungus called Nosema bombi is considered a suspect. That fungus is thought to be the cause of the sudden decline of several other bumble bee species in the United States, including the American bumble bee (B. pensylvanicus).
"In 20 years of studying bees, I have never seen a rusty-patched," said co-team-leader T'ai Roulston, from the University of Virginia, who is looking ahead to further study of the bee. "Where there is a worker bee, there is a colony and maybe more than one," he explained. "As they've gone underground for the winter, we can actively look for the colony next spring and study them and what might be affecting the species."
Roulston speculates that the rusty-patch population at the site may have developed a resistance to the fungus. "Or," he said, "we've discovered one of the last colonies and will get one more glimpse before they disappear forever."