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Cockerell’s bumble bee makes a comeback

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.


Cockerell's bumble bee. Photo by Greg Ballmer/UC Riverside


  • Fascinating! The more science progresses, the more amazing nature becomes. I just watched a NOVA episode titled “What Darwin Never Knew” which causes me to be intrigued by how this species may have adopted to this small area. Specifically, what genetic mutation occurred to make it so. Why hasn’t it, or what prevents it from migrating to other areas. Wonderful stuff to contemplate.

    • I saw that NOVA piece as well. It was really well done and I learned some things I never knew. I also liked the PBS episode based on Michael Pollan’s book, “The Botany of Desire.” The very first images were of bees on apple trees and the question, why do bees and humans like the same things? Interesting stuff.

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