Have you seen this bee?

Agency seeks to put Franklin's bumblebee on endangered list
Photo courtesy of Robbin Thorp

The feds are looking for Bombus Franklini.

She's a flight risk who hasn't been seen since 2006, but they figure there is a chance she still may be in the vicinity. They want the public to tip them off if they see her.

"We're hoping maybe somebody has seen something — there may be some sightings that haven't been recorded," Janet Lebson said. "We're really hoping someone in the agriculture community might have seen something relevant."

Lebson is the Oregon spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is seeking information about Franklin's bumblebee — Bombus Franklini is the Latin alias — to determine whether to list the bee under the Endangered Species Act. However, the last documented sighting was a worker bee seen on Mount Ashland in 2006.

Worker bees are all females, by the way. The workers have now completed their life span, leaving only the queens who lay their last broods, which will contain the coming year's queens and some short-lived males for reproductive purposes, experts explain.

Franklin's bumblebee has the smallest distribution of any bumblebee in North America, maybe even the world, Lebson said, noting it has been found only in Jackson, Josephine and Douglas counties in southwest Oregon and Siskiyou and Trinity counties in Northern California. Its range includes portions of the Rogue River and Klamath national forests, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's Medford District, and local agricultural lands and urban areas, officials said.

"We have long considered the Franklin's bumblebee a species of concern, and surveys over a dozen years seem to reveal a significant decline," said Paul Henson, state supervisor of the Fish & Wildlife Service, in a prepared statement. "We have some information on potential causes, but we don't know specifically what is happening with this particular species.

"Our goal at this point is to invite more scientific and commercial information, especially from people in the agricultural community who have imported bumblebees for pollinating crops and from academic researchers who may know about unrecorded Franklin's bumblebee sightings."

The bees can be distinguished from look-alike species by the extended yellow color between the head and abdomen, a black face with yellow on top of the head and a bit of white at the tip of the abdomen, according to experts.

Over the past 12 years, the agency has been providing financial and technical support, including some $30,000 for annual surveys and research to Robbin Thorp, professor emeritus at the Department of Entomology at the University of California at Davis. In 1998, Thorp saw 94 of the bees, but found only 20 in 1999, the agency reported. The trend continued downward until 20 were found in 2002, followed by zero each year until the single worker was found on Mount Ashland in 2006, the agency noted.

A separate BLM survey of 16 likely sites in 2006 also failed to find any of the rare bees.

Last year, Thorp and the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation petitioned the Fish & Wildlife Service to list Franklin's bumblebee as endangered under the Endangered Species Act and to designate critical habitat to protect them. The petition cited a wide range of potential threats, including everything from habitat alteration to pesticides, climate change to competition from other bees. Disease introduced through the use of commercially produced bumblebees for agricultural pollination may be the primary reason for the steep decline, according to the petitioners.

The bottom line, observed ecologist Scott Black, executive director of the Xerces Society based in Portland, is that bumblebees are important pollinators for commercial crops from domesticated berries to tomatoes, as well as wild berries vital to wildlife.

"They play a critical role as ecosystem pollinators," he said, noting that honey bees are not native. "These native bees are disproportionately important in wild systems.

"As an ecologist, I know the system is redundant," he added. "If we lose one bumblebee we may not notice. But we are facing a decrease in five different species across the U.S. We don't know what will happen if we lose all of them but we certainly don't want to go there to find out."

One of those whose numbers are in decline is the western bumblebee, Bombus occidentalis, which is also native to the greater region, Black said.

"There would still be some queens around now but they are really dropping off to overwinter," he said of the Franklin's bumblebees, adding they spend the winter in places like thick patches of grass and down logs. "You aren't likely to see them now."

The best bet to see one would be in the spring, probably around April when the bees begin emerging from eggs laid by the queen, he said.

"I am cautiously optimistic there are still some hives left out there," he said.

For addition information on Franklin's bumblebees, check out www.fws.gov/oregonfwo.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.


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