In Search of Bumblebees With Hands, Feet and Computers

Tiempo de lectura | Reading time: 8 minutos

By Eulogio López Reyes and Fadia Sara Ceccarelli

After returning from a long stay on an island where I worked as a field biologist, I was pleasantly surprised to find many women friends of the family at my house, among them, a little girl. Immediately, I started to tell them about my adventures on the island with emotion. I told them about the challenges we faced to get the job done, how dangerous some situations were, the scarce food and water, etc. Everything was about how wonderful it is to study animals in the wild (marine mammals on that occasion).

Abdomen (rear view) of a bumblebee with pollen on the hairs. Photo by E. López Reyes.

When I paused for a breath, the girl, who was focused on my narration, commented: “And if it’s so far away, difficult, sometimes dangerous and look how dirty you came back – isn’t it easier to turn on the TV and watch it on Discovery Channel?”.  I, then, dragged my backpacks back to my room and took a well-deserved bath.

Some years have passed since the previous anecdote happened, and now, I am about to narrate another of my adventures in the field, which no longer involves marine mammals in the oceanic islands. This one involves terrestrial bugs, bees and bumblebees of the crops and natural areas of Baja California. 

The story is short, if we count the number of bumblebees I have captured in several days of searching and chasing these insects. Collectively, all the students and volunteers of the team of the Arthropod Museum of Baja California at CICESE have captured about 10 individuals in the surroundings of Ensenada. It is precisely this small number of bumblebees that leads us to ask ourselves: what is happening to bumblebees?  

Bumblebee of the species Bombus ephippiatus pollinating a daisy flower. Photo by L.A. Garduño Villaseñor.

Bumblebees are flying bugs that are very similar to bees but bigger and chubbier. Their body is black and is protected by dark hairs, but their thorax and abdomen are crossed by yellow and white stripes. Its thorax is short and its head is small and narrow. It has two types of eyes (compound and ocelli). Its tongue and lip have a series of combinations, including a fluted one used as a tube to suck nectar from flowers.

When flying, its wings emit a high-pitched buzzing sound. On its forehead it has a pair of articulated antennae with tactile and olfactory functions. The bumblebee constantly moves and uses them to touch, feel and smell any object. Like all insects, the bumblebee has three pairs of legs. On each foreleg, it has a pair of antennae wipers. There is a series of combs and brushes that the worker bumblebee uses to extract pollen that sticks to its hair and body and the one that it collects in its pollen baskets.

Bumblebees are great pollinators of both wild plants and agricultural crops. Many studies conclude that bees and bumblebees are responsible for pollinating more than 80% of flowering plants, which include a large part of the plants consumed by humans. In other words, these insects help in the production of a large amount of human food, which is why it is very important to study them.

A bumblebee on California buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum). Photo by E. López Reyes.

During the research process, we usually start with simple questions like: how many species of bumblebees are there in Baja California and in which region are they? In what months of the year is it easier to see them? 

We can’t help but wonder, what is happening to bumblebees? Is there something happening in the environment that is leading to them being so few? Is it the global climate change? Is it pollution? Are we destroying the habitat where they live?

A CICESE Master’s student collecting pollinators for his thesis project. Photo by E. López Reyes.

Now then, although we like to go out in the field to discover where the different species of bumblebees live, we must also avoid looking in places where we are unlikely to find them. In order to do this, we use computer programs which, by combining climatic information from the region and records from other places where these bugs have been found, show us the unexplored areas where we could find them. As an example, we show maps for three little known bumblebee species in Baja California: Bombus crotchii, B. occidentalis and B. morrisioni.

Looking for bumblebees and other pollinators in a sunflower crop in Maneadero. Photo by V. Ortiz.

In these maps, cropped to show the Baja California peninsula and its surroundings, you can see all the spots where these insects have previously been found. In addition, the colors on the maps show how likely it is that the species is found in each unexplored site. So, for example, the green areas on the three maps tell us that bumblebees are very likely to be found there, while the red to white areas indicate that there is no need to waste time looking into those places.

Maps of Baja California and surrounding areas, with records of bumblebees and indications for their possible distributions. Photo by F.S. Ceccarelli.

What does this mean for the three species of bumblebees we have in mind? That it is not necessary to go out to the field in search of Bombus morrisoni because it will not be found in Baja California, that Bombus occidentalis can perhaps be found in the Sierra de San Pedro Mártir, and, in the case of Bombus crotchii, I should pack my backpack again as it is worth to go on a long expedition to look for it all over the peninsula to study it. And so, thanks to such expeditions, children will be able to continue watching new programs on Discovery Channel and we will be able to answer the questions we ask ourselves.

About the authors

Oceanographer Eulogio López Reyes and Fadia Sara Ceccarelli, PhD. Arthropod Museum of Baja California, Department of Conservation Biology, Ensenada Center for Scientific Research and Higher Education (CICESE).

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