By Jan Peterson, for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Pacific Region
EDITOR'S NOTE: 2023 marks the golden anniversary of the ESA, a law that has been a powerful catalyst for conservation of America’s most treasured fish, wildlife, plants and their habitats for five decades. People power the mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Here in the Pacific Region, Tribal, federal and state partners, local supporters, and our dedicated staff are the driving force behind the successes we share and the strength ensuring we can continue to face the challenges ahead. Throughout this yearlong celebration, we invite you to celebrate this milestone with us as we reflect on past successes, assess current challenges, and envision an equally bright future for the next 50 years and beyond.
Over the last five years, the Bumble Bee Atlas project has grown from an idea on how to get volunteers involved in collecting data on native bumblebees in the Pacific Northwest to a nationwide quest to learn as much as we can about these vital pollinators.
The atlas is a terrific example of how partnerships between government, nongovernmental organizations, private landowners and volunteers have contributed to preventing the extinction of so many animals and plants over the course of the Endangered Species Act’s first 50 years.
Rich Hatfield, who has studied bees all his adult life, says the idea for the atlas was born about 10 years ago when he began working at the nonprofit Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, in Portland, Oregon. He realized a pile of data on bumblebees he’d been handed to assess the extinction risk of North America’s bumblebees forced him to make inferences that made him uncomfortable. Hatfield, now senior conservation biologist for the nonprofit’s endangered species program, remembers thinking, “How could we do a better job gathering data for the purposes of conservation decision making?”
The clock was ticking.
Before Hatfield’s tenure at Xerces, a number of studies indicated that several species of bumblebees were experiencing significant population declines. The analyses he led for the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Bumble Bee Specialist Group, corroborated those studies, indicating that more than one-quarter of the approximately 50 bumblebee species in North America were facing some degree of extinction risk. Hatfield wanted to find a way to enlist the public’s help in gathering the data to make more informed decisions and learn how to help species recover. There simply weren’t enough scientists to scour the countryside for bumblebees in the timeframe needed to make a difference.
He got a sense the public was eager to help from an early program Xerces developed using wanted posters for three rare species. “We distributed them all over the country and set up an email account to gather photos,” Hatfield recalls. “We learned that people were enthusiastic to contribute and it didn’t take a whole lot of effort to get people engaged. We got thousands of responses and a fair number of positive hits.”
But he discovered over the next few years that the program needed a lot of tweaking to get the kind of data he was hoping for.
By 2017, the Xerces Society had partnered with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and partners in Oregon to develop a grid-style system that divided the three states into manageable grids for citizen scientists to adopt. They developed a training program for volunteers, created a system for submitting data and photos and put the focus on the Species of Greatest Conservation Need. That same year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service awarded the partnership a Competitive State Wildlife Grant to launch the Pacific Northwest Bumble Bee Atlas.
Taylor Cotten is the Conservation Assessment Section Manager at Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and one of the project leads. “The amazing part of this project of course, is it couldn’t succeed without all those amazing volunteers. Professional biologists alone could not collect that volume of data,” he says.
Kevin Schafer is among the scores of volunteers who have adopted and surveyed grids over the years. The wildlife photographer has traveled the world documenting endangered species and natural history for publications including National Geographic. Now retired, Schafer has volunteered for the atlas since its inception.
“I thought, ‘Well, that’d be fun.’ It was an excuse to go into the backcountry and chase bees around. I’ve dedicated my summers for the last five years doing this,” he says. “I just wish (bees) were around all year. I’d be happy doing that.”
While Schafer has the advantage of being a professional photographer, he says that previous skill in bee identification and photography is not necessary. However, the atlas’ training on what to look for, how to identify bees and how to collect data is required for participation.
“You can’t do this work very well, very productively, unless you go through the training and start learning what you’re looking at,” Schafer says. “The challenge is that bumblebees are so variable that identifying them is hard.”
Fortunately, volunteers don’t need to be experts in bumblebee identification, or even be able to identify bumblebee species at all – that is the job of the project leaders who carefully verify every photo taken by volunteers. The main role of project volunteers is to spend the effort it takes to get to remote or unsurveyed locations and take the photos that experts need to curate a high-quality data set.
Leif Richardson, a conservation biologist and one of the taxonomic experts with the Xerces Society based in California, agrees that volunteers are crucial to the project’s success. “These community science volunteers – equipped with nets and cameras – can collect high-quality scientific data from across the state,” Richardson says, “reaching areas that my colleagues and I alone could not, even if we had years to complete the task.”
The information the volunteers collect is invaluable, Richardson says. “It helps us better understand bumblebee distributions and trends and how species are faring statewide, which aids in restoration and management that targets declining bumblebee species,” he says.
In 2022, the first year of the California Bumble Bee Atlas, Richardson says about 1,000 people registered to participate in California alone.
Schafer says each outing is an opportunity to make a difference. A volunteer may be the first to see a rare bumblebee. Franklin’s Bumble Bee, recently added as an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act, for example, was last seen in 2006, but hope remains it still exists. Any data collected from sighting it will help inform how its habitat should be cared for and inform recovery efforts.
Hatfield says the training and the project are designed to fit anyone’s schedule. “The most basic level is your backyard naturalist who sees a bumblebee on a flower and contributes that observation to Bumble Bee Watch. That helps us learn where bumblebees are living and what flowers they are using,” he says.
“The next step up, and the effort that is really needed to improve our ability to conserve species, is to adopt a grid cell and do a standardized survey that gathers data on bumblebee communities and the habitats they use,” Hatfield says. This helps tell the scientists what bumblebees need to survive. “We need as much evidence as we can gather to understand where these species are thriving, why that might be, and also where they’re absent,” he says. “That way, we can learn to manage land in ways that will support the suite of animals that help create a healthy ecosystem. More than two-thirds of the plants on the planet require an animal pollinator, which is usually a bee. Diverse flowers produce the diverse foods, including seeds, nuts, and fruits, that feed most animals on the planet. To have diverse flowers and food, we need healthy communities of bees.”
Since its creation, the Bumble Bee Atlas led by Xerces and state wildlife agency partners has spread from the Pacific Northwest across the nation, in part by successfully competing for two additional grants through the Competitive State Wildlife Grant program. Xerces-led atlas projects can also be found in North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, Iowa, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia. Other groups are leading similar projects in Alaska, Wisconsin, Ohio and Maine.
“It’s really been an incredible ride,” Hatfield says. “I get tingles talking about it. We spent years developing an idea and fostering partnerships. Ultimately, we put our faith in the concept and threw it out in the world with a hope that anyone would notice. As you’ve seen, the public’s response has been overwhelming, with thousands of people dedicating countless volunteer hours and personal effort to contribute to pollinator conservation. And we could not do this without the partnership of state wildlife agencies and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.”
Lia McLaughlin – biologist and grants management specialist with the Service’s Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration program – says that the Bumble Bee Atlas’ architects won the grants by putting together strong proposals.
“I can honestly see it being something like the Christmas Bird Count, which is an international effort,” McLaughlin says. “I think this is something that can be expanded internationally because the framework is already set up, making it easier to replicate.”
To join the growing network of Bumble Bee Atlas volunteers across the country and find out how you can contribute, go to BumbleBeeAtlas.org. For volunteers in the Pacific Northwest, you can find information at the Pacific Northwest Bumble Beet Atlas events page. For those of you who don’t yet have an atlas project in your state, observations of bumblebees can still be submitted to BumbleBeeWatch.org. Conserving bumblebees and other pollinators will take the collective efforts of all of us. While programs like the atlas projects provide us with the data we need to manage our public lands, everyone can start at home by creating pollinator friendly landscapes.