A sighting of the Yellow-banded Bumblebee (Bombus terricola) would not have raised eyebrows 20 years ago, but today, the presence of this species at the North Branch Nature Center is cause for celebration. The once-common species has been in sharp decline since the mid-1990’s and now exists in only isolated pockets of its formerly extensive range. This species is just one of many (there are around 20 species of bumblebees in Vermont alone) that is rapidly disappearing across the country.
Bumblebees are important pollinators of both native and agriculturally significant plants, and easily recognized by their large size and furry bodies. But only upon more careful study can their many varieties be distinguished. Some species need to be examined under magnifying lenses to be identified, but the Yellow-banded Bumblebee has a distinctive pattern that can be seen from a distance. Its thorax is fronted with yellow and reared with black, and its abdomen has a series of black and yellow bands that set it apart from others in our area. While this description may sound too complex for an amateur to pick out, it is surprisingly easy to detect even when the bee is aloft.
The Yellow-banded Bumblebee pictured to the right was photographed at NBNC on July 2, visiting the Milkweed that is in full blossom throughout the Nature Center’s fields. Renowned Vermont author Bernd Heinrich studied bumblebees extensively leading up to his publishing of Bumblebee Economics in 1979. At sites where Heinrich had commonly encountered the Yellow-banded Bumblebee in Vermont and Maine, he recently went many years without finding a single specimen.
We’re still just beginning to understand why some bumblebees have vanished, where they still remain, and how to best conserve and restore their populations. NBNC educator Larry Clarfeld is helping with this effort, and will present a lecture on Vermont’s Declining Bumblebees on Tuesday, July 24, at 6:30 p.m. Please join him to learn more about the perils that bumblebees are now facing and what is being done to help them.
For more information on identifying Yellow-banded Bumblebees, visit the Xerces Society's page.