How often do you notice bees - only when one flies near you? Bees are actually VIPs: very important pollinators. Worldwide, bees play a part in 1 of every 3 bites of food people eat. For a group we know is so important, relatively little is known about wild bee species across much of Alaska. That’s where the Alaska Bee Atlas project comes in.

Staff from Selawik Refuge conducted bee surveys in 2021 and 2022 following the Alaska Bee Atlas procedure. Sampling consists of placing (and later collecting) bowl traps which attract and capture bees. It also includes noting the plant species and flowers present and attempting to capture flying bees with an insect net. All collected bees are sent off to a lab for careful species identification.

We collected and submitted 37 samples. Most of the samples collected (27/37) were bumblebees, from the genus Bombus. Alaska has 22 known species of bumblebees (you know, the round fuzzy ones with contrasting yellow and black colored  bands of soft hair). Bumblebees pollinate a wide array of plants and carry a lot of pollen from plant to plant, leading to fertilization. Eight different species of bumblebees were collected here.

Bumblebees are social insects. They build their nests in the ground, in abandoned burrows and under logs. The queen overwinters in the soil while the rest of the colony dies. In early spring she establishes a new nest and rears the first worker brood. In contrast, the few other types of bees which we found in our samples are solitary, including the sweat bees (9/37 samples, genus Halictidae) and plasterer bees (1/37 samples, genus Colletes).

For more information about the Alaska Bee Atlas project, see maintained by the University of Alaska Anchorage's Alaska Center for Conservation Science (ACCS).