Field Notes
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
Field Notes Entry   
ALASKA PENINSULA/BECHAROF: Unexpected Diversity of Bees Found
Alaska Region, May 30, 2012
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Biologist Dom Watts capturing bumblebee near Ruth Lake, Becharof NWR, July 2011.
Biologist Dom Watts capturing bumblebee near Ruth Lake, Becharof NWR, July 2011. - Photo Credit: USFWS/Julia Pinnix

Refuge Biologist Dominique Watts began collecting bees last year out of curiosity. No inventory has ever been done of pollinators on the Alaska Peninsula. Since bees are on the decline in many parts of the contiguous United States, Dom wondered what might be found here, and whether these bees, too, are in trouble. What he learned was startling.


Dom tried a variety of collection methods, recruiting assistance from other staff members and volunteers. He preserved the specimens in 100% ethanol and sent them to his partners in the US Department of Agriculture’s Bee Biology and Systematics Laboratory. “I expected to find maybe 4 or 5 species,” Dom said. But preliminary results showed at least 15 different species, including 2 that are critically threatened elsewhere.

James Strange is conducting DNA research on bumblebees for the USDA. Using DNA analysis and microscopic identification methods, he has verified 9 species of bumblebees so far in Dom’s specimens. Terry Griswold is an expert in the smaller bees and has been crucial in identification of small bee specimens.

Samples of bee species were taken opportunistically in 2011, piggybacking on other projects. This will continue in 2012.

Bombus moderatus is one of the most common bumblebees found thus far. B. balteatus, on the other hand, has been collected at only one location. The Western bumblebee, B. occidentalis, is in dramatic decline from California to British Columbia, where it is an alpine bee. As alpine areas shrink from globally increasing temperatures, this bee, along with animals like the pika, are in trouble. In our area, the Western bumblebee is a tundra species.

B. polaris is the Arctic bumblebee, and a species of concern. It is in severe decline throughout much of its range. Covered in dense “fur” and with a higher body temperature than other bumblebees, it pollinates blueberry, willow, poppies, and roses. Only 2 individuals were collected last summer.

A subgenus of bumblebee, Psithyrus, is called the cuckoo bee for its parasitic habits. Unable to collect its own pollen, it lives in other bumblebee colonies. 5 samples have been collected, but these are not yet identified to species level.

Although bumblebees are a more visible type of bee, there are at least 3 smaller kinds Dom has collected. Andrena are miner bees, living in little burrows in sandy soil. At least 2 species have been identified here. Another parasitic bee, Nomada, is particularly common. These look like little wasps, maybe half the size of a honeybee. A few Lasioglossum (known as sweat bees) have been collected. They are most common in the tropics, and do not sting or bite. Nomada and Lasioglossum samples are not yet identified to the species level.

Contact Info: Julia Pinnix, 907-246-1211, Julia_Pinnix@fws.gov
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