wild bees and native bees

It’s time to monitor bumble bees

The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation recently partnered with several state organizations to create the Pacific Northwest Bumble Bee Atlas, a citizen science project to monitor bumble bee populations. I was fortunate to participate in a recent training in Wenatchee, Washington where I learned about bumble bee biology, identification, and survey techniques.

Graduates of the training are expected to adopt a “grid cell” where they will monitor bumble bees during the summer. The commitment is not huge. Once you adopt a grid, you need only sample in the grid twice a year for 45 minutes. Complete instructions are provided, along with tools such as a butterfly net and a tube (much like a queen-marking plunger) that allows you to photograph a captured bee from the bottom and the top.

Participants are allowed to adopt as many cells as they want. I adopted three that are fairly close to home and I’m hoping to round up some friends to go with me. If you have a trained partner, you can cut your time in half, since the 45 minutes are “person minutes.”

It’s not too late to participate

If you were unable to attend the training, you can still sign up to participate in the PNW Bumble Bee Atlas. All the course materials are being offered online, and there are still plenty of cells that need covering.

All collecting is non-destructive of the bumble bees themselves. Using the net, the tube, and a camera or cell phone, you can catch a bee, photograph it up close, and then release it back into the environment. You can also bring a cooler if you want to slow down the bee before transferring it into the photography chamber.

You can try to identify your bee using the guides provided, but it’s not necessary. Once you finish your survey, you upload your data and photos to the bee atlas where experts will identify your species.

Not into grids? Join Bumble Bee Watch

Even if you don’t want to adopt a grid, you can join Bumble Bee Watch and submit sightings and photographs from wherever you happen to see bumble bees. The information gathered is used to assess bumble bee populations and how they are changing over time. In addition to the Xerces Society, the PNW Bumble Bee Atlas is supported by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Oregon Department of Agriculture, and Oregon State University.

I would like to thank many of my readers, including Nancy Partlow of Tumwater and Lisa Robinson of Wenatchee, for alerting me to this training opportunity. In turn, I hope that some of you will sign up online and adopt a grid cell. Remember, all bees benefit from a healthy environment and whatever we learn about one species of bee can be used to help others. So come on, beekeepers, get out there and count bumbles!

Honey Bee Suite

Bombus nevadensis

Bombus nevadensis on wild alfalfa. You don’t need to put the bee in a tube if you can get photos that show the head, thorax, and abdomen (top and bottom). You can submit up to three photos per bee. © Rusty Burlew.

Bombus nevadensis

Bombus nevadensis. I took these photos during the field exercise in Wenatchee. © Rusty Burlew.

<em>Bombus nevadensis</em> on wild alfalfa.

Bombus nevadensis on wild alfalfa. Sometimes a shot from the side allows you to see the head, the thorax, and both sides of the abdomen. © Rusty Burlew.

<em>Bombus griseocollis</em>. I was amazed at the size of these bees. Huge.

Bombus griseocollis. I was amazed at the size of these bees. Huge. © Rusty Burlew.

Monitor bumble bees. <em>Bombus griseocollis</em> taking a quick sip of nectar.

Bombus griseocollis taking a quick sip of nectar. © Rusty Burlew.

<em>Bombus griseocollis</em> in flight.

Bombus griseocollis in flight. © Rusty Burlew.


  • Do you know if there is a UK watch scheme Rusty? I looked at your link and it is very much aimed at the US. I hadn’t realised you have a lot of different species to the UK. And one called Rusty-Patched which is endangered in Canada!

    • Ray,

      The rusty-patched bumble bee was the first bee to be put on the US endangered species list. Franklin’s bumble is most probably already extinct (it hasn’t been seen in years). Also in danger are the western bumble bee, the American bumble bee, and the yellow-banded bumble bee.

      In the UK, the Bumblebee Conservation Trust is doing monitoring.

      • Thanks Rusty, I’ll have a look at that.

        I was actually be slightly facetious suggesting you had a bumble bee named after you but you didn’t bite!


  • I saw just a short portion on the reason why the bumble bees are being monitered, but it didn’t go into any depth. Can you explain further please. Are they declining or being pushed out by land clearing?

    • Merilyn,

      Many species of bees are probably in decline, not just bumble bees. The usual reasons are habitat loss, parasites and predators, introduced diseases, poisoning from pesticides, habitat fragmentation, loss of forage due to land use changes and invasive plant species, competition from honey bees, and climate change.

  • There is a lot of effort going into monitoring the bumble bees. I thought there must be a special reason for the monitoring. We don’t have bumble bees in mainland Australia but there is an introduced bumble bee in Tasmania. Apparently Biosecurity don’t want bumble bees in mainland Australia. They have been found a couple of times and erradicated in Melbourne and Sydney. There are some very large bees, like carpenter bees that could easily be confused with bumble bees. We have the carpenter bees in Townsville in northern Australia where I live.

  • Thank you! It’s a little late right now, but I put a reminder on my calendar to join up early next Spring. I love bee-watching, it’ll be nice for my hobby to benefit them back 🙂

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