Western Bumble Bee
8:08 am
Mon August 11, 2014

Buzzworthy Breeding To Bring Back Bumble Bees

Some scientists are going to great lengths to help the agreeable Western bumble bee make a comeback.

This is how a bumble bee queen is marked for selective breeding.
This is how a bumble bee queen is marked for selective breeding.
Credit Megan Asche

You might not have noticed, but this important pollinator of both flowers and greenhouse crops has nearly disappeared from the landscape. An introduced fungal disease is suspected of decimating populations of the fat and furry Western bumble bee (Bombus occidentalis).

Researchers with the U.S. Agriculture Department have identified some surviving colonies that show disease tolerance. Now a federal bee lab in Utah is collaborating with experts at Washington State University to reestablish the native pollinator. USDA entomologist Jamie Strange is leading a captive breeding project to improve stock fitness. That even includes artificial insemination of the small insects.

"We have this instrumental insemination that we're working on developing at this point," Strange says. "It is still in its infancy, but we hope that we can actually remove sperm from the males and then inject it into the females like they do with certain honey bee breeding programs."

Strange says commercial pollination companies that truck bee colonies from farm to farm are eager for him to succeed. "As honey bees become more limited and more expensive, they're looking for alternatives. We're here to help them," Strange says. "Growers are interested in using bumble bees to supplement pollination in berry crops, orchards and other places."

"When you have both honey bees and wild bees present, you have improved yields from both working together," WSU collaborating entomologist Steve Sheppard says. "There are certain crops where bumble bees are much better" pollinators, he said during a telephone interview.

Sheppard noted that British Columbia's large industry of hot house tomato growers relies on non-native bumble bees for pollination. He said honey bees typically fly to the ceiling if released in a glass house.

In any event, sooner or later either species tends to get out. "If Jamie can develop a regionally more appropriate species… there could be a lot of interest to use it in Western states," Sheppard says. Non-native imports "could displace or harm native bumble bees. That's the logic to not take a species that does not occur in West and put in glass houses."

Some states, including Oregon, do not even allow the import of non-native bumble bees to minimize the risk of unleashing disease or unwanted competition with native species.

Bumble bees and honey bees can be fairly easily distinguished. Bumble bees are fat and furry. The smaller and slimmer honey bee more closely resembles a wasp. Honey bees live in large hives, while bumble bees tend to cluster in smaller nests which do not produce surplus honey.