Beautiful Bees: Project Update 8/2014

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A Common Eastern Bumble Bee (Bombus impatiens) visits a Senna herbecarpa bloom in the South Carolina Botanical Garden’s Piedmont Prairie. © Clay Bolt | beautifulbees.org.

Where has the summer gone? One of the frustrations of being an insect photographer is the inevitable end-of-season blues, when the cooler temperatures blow in and remove almost all traces of your favorite subject matter. Although we still have some time left for summer here in South Carolina, the first signs of the season’s wind down have begun. The katydids are quieting down at night and the field crickets have begun to hint at their end of season song. I no longer hear the frogs singing in the pond and here and there, the first speckles of color are beginning to stain the leaves. The one benefit of the cooler months is that I will have time to carefully go back through the thousands of bee-related images that I have made this spring and summer. I’l be sharing many of these with you here.

This has been a really great first year for the Beautiful Bees project. In truth, the project has only really been ‘live’ for a few months and it has received a lot of nice press in its short existence, from National Geographic, WIRED, Mother Nature News and The Weather Channel. I’ve begun to gain a better understand of how to identify species thanks to the help of some really brilliant experts like Étienne Normandin and John Ascher and have spent many hours in the field attempting to document the lives of a few species. I’ve traveled to California for National Geographic and photographed Black Tailed Bumble Bees flying in front of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, I also spent time in Florida, Tennessee, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina. It is hard to imagine that this is only the beginning.

I have a very long way to go to tell the story of North America’s native bees. In truth, it is unrealistic to even suggest that I will ever even close to telling the full story. However, what I hope to do is inspire viewers to appreciate these incredible animals that contribute so much to our own lives through their efforts as pollinators and as beautiful inhabitants of our world. There is a lot of news about the issues facing bees this day, but I have found that in general, the average person isn’t aware that there are many other species of bees beyond honey bees, sweat bees (a general term), bumble bees and carpenter bees (which most people despise). This needs to change.

Throughout this project I will be following several threads. One story that has really alarmed me is the plight of the Rusty Patched Bumble Bee (Bombus affinis). In the past 15 years, this species’ population has declined  precipitously to the point that it now only inhabits 13% of its known historic range. Its numbers have been affected by habitat loss, pesticides and potentially by a pathogen that was introduced into North American via imported European bumble bees that were brought to the U.S. to pollinate greenhouse tomatoes. One of my project partners, The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation,  has drafted a petition to raise support for having this species listed as Federally Endangered and Threatened. You might find it hard to believe that with all of the trouble that bees are facing these days, not a single species is on the Endangered Species List. This would be a step in the right direction.

My final big trip of the year will be in a couple of weeks to the Midwest, where I hope to find B. affinis in the wild. During a recent visit to Great Smoky Mountains National Park I had the privilege of reviewing the Park’s specimen collection. Park entomologist Becky Nichols brought out a small collection of Rusty Patched Bumble Bees, a species that hasn’t been seen in Tennessee since 2000. Eyes dull and wings frozen in time, I couldn’t help but wonder if I was looking at a ghost in the making. Was this facsimile of the beautiful creature that is still hanging on in the Midwest all that would be left one day? It is a chilling thought.

I suspect that as I journey across North America, I’ll come across many stories. Some will be a source of exhilaration and others, a source of sadness. All-in-all the story must be told and I will do this to the best of my ability. Thank you for joining me on my adventure.

– Clay

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