Bumblebee atlas documenting Northwest’s at-risk bee population

Andony Melathopoulos, a pollinator specialist at Oregon State University, holds a metallic sweat bee bumblebee from his collection. (Jubilee Likayi)

Bumblebees buzz around a small garden at Oregon State University, landing on pink flowers and popping in and out of tiny holes drilled into logs. Andony Melathopoulos, a pollinator specialist at the university, stands smiling among his beloved bees.

“They’re adorable,” Melathopoulos said.

He’s worried that scenes like this could soon disappear from the Pacific Northwest.

Researchers and volunteers with the Pacific Northwest Bumble Bee Atlas, a three-year research project started in January, are coming together to collect important data and potentially save these vital pollinators threatened by climate change, habitat destruction and several other contributing factors.

Bees play an important role in Oregon’s biodiversity. If one bumblebee species falls, the plants they pollinate might fall as well, creating a domino effect that could dismantle entire ecosystems. If the Pacific Northwest Bumble Bee Atlas is a success, the new data could help researchers find ways to head off an environmental catastrophe.

The atlas is a group effort among state agencies in Oregon, Washington and Idaho, as well as researchers at Oregon State and the Xerces Society, a Portland-based nonprofit dedicated to protecting insects. The project’s primary goal is to teach volunteer citizen scientists how to track and conserve bumblebee populations.

Atlas volunteers have gathered data since last June, before the project officially started. They each adopted 2.5-acre plots of land where they find and catch bees, then chill them in coolers so they can photograph the insects from several angles. They then send the photos to researchers to build a database of species of bumblebees that live in the area.

“We want to see if we can build among this amazing volunteer base in Oregon,” said Melathopoulos, who is also a collaborator with the atlas. “We want people who are competent, and not entirely dependent. Oregon has enough capacity of really dedicated people to pull this off.”

Initial research suggests that the bumblebee populations are in decline, but in reality, there’s little data to back that up, Melathopoulos said.

“It’s unclear if there’s been a change,” he said.

More information, collected by volunteers, could help clarify that. What is clear is that the diversity of the bee population has decreased.

Oregon boasts 25 species of bumblebees. The smaller, rarer species are the ones dying out, Melathopoulos said. With fewer varieties of bees, Oregon’s biodiversity suffers.

At the Oregon State Arthropod Collection, curator Christopher Marshall shows visitors insect specimens ranging in size and color, displayed on tiny pins in cases stored in long rows of drawers. Several insects in the collection are endangered or extinct.

The older specimens in the arthropod collection also illuminate a major problem the bee atlas faces: identification. Many bumblebee species are small and look practically the same. That’s an obstacle volunteers with the atlas face in the field, requiring detailed training that teaches them how to record sightings accurately.

Unlike honeybees, which are usually domesticated in massive hives and are, therefore, easier to track, bumblebees are often solitary and more elusive in the wild, living in colonies of 10 to 100 and hibernating in underground nests.

“You can’t go to the beekeepers and ask how the wild bees are on their property,” Marshall said. “They just don’t know.”

Marshall also said the stigma about bees being dangerous makes it more difficult to attract people to help protect them.

“Nobody’s trying to save something they have an aversion to,” he said.

For people like Kathleen Dennis, bees are something that bring joy instead.

Dennis, an Albany-based volunteer with the atlas, does her part by growing plants that are popular with pollinators, identifying the bees that fly in. She encourages gardeners to grow plants that attract bumblebees, such as foxglove, lavender and snapdragon. Pest-prone and non-native plants will discourage bees from pollinating.

“Over the years, I’ve committed to helping pollinators in yards, trying to encourage people to plant things that lend a hand to bees at the same time,” Dennis said. “It doesn’t have to be that hard.”

— Jane Arterberry, Oregon City High School
— Jubilee Likayi, Parkrose High School