Outside Insights

Originally published in Castine Patriot, September 14, 2023
Yellow banded bumble bee

Yellow banded bumble bee

Yellow banded bumble bee.

Photo by Peter Cooperdock Order prints of selected PBP photos.

by Peter Cooperdock

“Listen to the buzzing of the bees!”

“The hydrangeas are filled with them.”

“It’s certainly satisfying to see so many.”

Bees of all kinds have been enduring rapid population declines. Honey bees, transported to agricultural fields up the East Coast to pollinate the developing crops from early spring through summer, have had their decline outlined in catastrophic terms. The appropriately termed “colony collapse” scenario signals the potential end of common agricultural practices, including for our local blueberry fields. The fate of bumble bees, including the yellow banded bumble bee, is equally alarming.

The yellow banded bumble bees once ranged across the northern half of North America. With their furry coat, these bees, and others like them, are adapted to the cooler climates. Their day starts earlier and extends later than the managed non-native populations of honey bees. The life cycle of the yellow banded bumble bees is intertwined with the native vegetation of their terrain, its climate and the progression of the seasons. These patterns culminate in the annual die-off of most members of the community while the queens burrow into the ground to wait out the winter.

“There are several species of similar looking bumble bees.”

“One source states that the yellow banded bumble bee has gone extinct in Maine.”

“These appear to match the characteristics, but I’m not going to kill any to make sure.”

The decline of this species, along with many others, has been attributed to habitat loss, which encompasses many impacts to their health and genetic viability. The shrinking gene pools of remaining isolated pockets lead to greater susceptibility to pathogens that have entered the environment, often through the introduction of managed bee populations to the area. As the natural environment of yellow banded bumble bees is replaced with farmland and housing developments, connectivity of habitat is interrupted and opportunities for diversity decline.

Pesticides have also been implicated in bees’ decline. While the use of many pesticides has been reduced in recent decades, the increased use of a certain class of insecticide, known as neonicotinoids, has been shown to have a devasting impact on bees of all kinds, through multiple pathways. There is the direct termination of the life of the bee, along with disruption of the neurology of the bee, which can affect the rates of reproduction, health of the bee and reduced resistance to pathogens.

“We humans certainly have made ourselves known on this planet.”

“Questionable whether that is a good thing.”

“Living with, instead of opposed to, the rest of Nature would seem a better choice.”