In late August of this year, along a weedy stretch of highway north of Cloudcroft, New Mexico, three bumble bees were plucked from the side of the road. The specimens, which were collected and identified by a team of entomologists from UC Riverside, turned out to be Cockerell’s bumble bees. “And what is so special about that?” you ask. Well, for starters, the last time these bees were seen was in 1956. That’s 55 years ago—a long time to do your own thing with nobody watching.
Cloudcroft is a town on the northern border of the Lincoln National Forest in south-central New Mexico. Cockerell’s bumble bee was originally discovered north of this area in 1913. Between 1913 and 1956 it was reported 16 more times in Cloudcroft as well as a few times in neighboring areas along the Rio Ruidoso and once in the town of Ruidoso. And then it disappeared.
Most of the bumble bee species in the United States are identified from hundreds, or even thousands, of specimens. But with so few specimens of the Cockerell’s bumble bee available for study, a number of entomologists dismissed it as merely a variant of a more common species, and so paid little attention over the years.
New genetic tools, however, have shown that the bee is a distinct species—one with an incredibly small range for a bumble bee. As far as the researchers can determine, the Cockerell’s bumble has been living in an area of less than 300 square miles—mostly in and around the Lincoln National Forest and nearby tribal lands. This protected and isolated habitat helped the bee survive down through the decades in spite of its extremely small natural range. Scientists say the bee is not endangered by habitat loss, at least not for now.