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Surveying for Bumble Bees in the High Country – A fun addition to hiking and helping science

By Kate C. Walker, Wenatchee WA

Bombus kirbiellus male in the bottom of a jar

"Wait! Just one more. That one looks different. I need to get this one. I'll catch up..."

There are so many bumble bees everywhere I turn. It’s maddening; I want to capture and photograph them all. Who knows when I will take another trip into this area?

Surveying for bumble bees has added another exciting dimension to my hiking. Perhaps not always a good thing if you ask whom I'm hiking with. It slows me down, but not by much. I've got it down to about 60 seconds to capture a bee, take their picture, record the host species, and mark a point on a map. I have recorded upwards of 38 individuals on any given hike. So... I guess the time can add up. I usually can catch up to my husband without causing too many issues. For me, the time-consuming part comes at the computer: downloading and organizing pictures, identifying the bee to the best of my ability, and entering them into an online database. There are approximately 28 bumblebee species in Washington, which may not seem like a lot, but when you take into account that the male and females look different, and each species has variation in coloration across its region, it gets tricky.

I had already completed four “official” surveys for the Pacific Northwest Bumble Bee Atlas, a Xerces citizen science project collecting information on bumble bee species distribution (see to get involved!) I became so interested in bumble bees that I couldn’t stop looking for them on every hike I went on, so I started to make “incidental” observations to contribute, and a lot of them. I don’t think I went on one hike between May and September without my net to record incidental observations.

Just like the bees, I dispersed across our public land, going higher and higher in elevation as the snow receded and the flowers bloomed. This year, as I learned more about bumble bees of WA, I wanted to challenge myself to document some of the rarer, higher-elevation forest species. Success! I captured Bombus sylvicola, B. frigidus and B. kirbiellus in the high country. Along the way, I also discovered bees eating aphid honeydew at the tips of new pine needles; this is a source of sugar, but not necessarily with the nutrients that pollen brings, from what I understand. I discovered a handful of nests, like finding a needle in a haystack. Who would have thought one would stumble across a hole in the ground smaller than the size of a dime? But there they were! I usually discovered them when I paused to take a water break and noticed consistent activity in and out of an area. I also observed bumble bees, collecting pollen off of alpine meadow sedge species (Carex sp.), a normally wind-pollinated species. How cool!

Getting involved, even in a small way, by making incidental observations, will help scientists and land managers get a “better understanding of where bumble bees are thriving in the Pacific Northwest, and glean information about what habitat features are contributing to productive bumble bee communities. Ultimately we will better understand how to manage lands throughout the region that will help to support a more healthy ecosystem.” ( I encourage you to add another dimension to your hikes, and get involved!

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