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WNC Citizen Science Buzz for Endangered Bees

If you have some spare time this summer, the  U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service could use your help.  The Asheville field office is on a mission to find an endangered species that hasn’t been spotted in Western North Carolina in more than a decade.  BPR’s Helen Chickering has details.

“This one has a little brown spot”  

It’s a sunny morning in Madison County and a small group of people including U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologists, Allen Ratzlaff and Bryan Tompkins are crouched over a lush hilly landscape, cameras in hand, eyes fixed on the ground below, hunting for an endangered species.

“Does it have a spot on its back?”

“They are so tiny you need lots of eyes out there looking for them.” says Phyllis Stiles, Bee City USA

Phyllis Stiles is the director and founder of Bee City USA.  If you haven’t guessed by now, the endangered species is a bee and the particular kind of bee she’s hoping to find is the Rusty Patched Bumble Bee, named for the little patch that looks like rust on its abdomen.

“It’s easy to spot an elephant, it’s easy to spot a grizzly bear, but not so easy to spot a particular kind of bee,” Says Stiles.  

Biologist Bryan Tompkins is leading the Fish and Wildlife’s search for the Rusty Patched Bumble Bee here in the Southeast.

“The Rusty Patched Bumble Bee has its final designation as an endangered species, at end of March this year, “ says Tompkins, “ It’s a species that not very long ago, was an an incredibly common species on the landscape.”

This once common species has declined in nearly 90 percent of its range, becoming the first bumblebee, and first bee overall in the Continental United Sates to be listed under the endangered species act 

“So in terms of getting the benefits of that endangered species status, if we can’t find one in Western North Carolina, then it doesn’t really benefit us from the point of view of putting federal dollars, preserving their property, doing things that gives them a better chance of survival in Western North Carolina.”

HC:  “Haven’t seen the Rusty Patched around here?” 

“Not yet,” says Bryan Tompkins, “The last record was in 2006, that was over in the Smokies, and that is the most recent record in Western North Carolina.  The last record for this area (Madison County) was in late 1990s.  You know, it’s hard to say that it’s not going to be anywhere, because people just haven’t been looking and the more effort we put into that hopefully it will turn up. “   

And that’s where the call for citizen scientists comes in.

“We’re asking people to take pictures, document what they see, and send me the information so we can compile a database, so we can see what species are scattered across the landscape and where those are occurring.”

And you never know you may have an endangered species buzzing around in your back yard.

Want to join the hunt for the Rusty Patched Bumble Bee?   Click here to learn more and click here to email Bee pictures to USFWS Biologist Bryan Tompkins.   

Helen Chickering is a host and reporter on Blue Ridge Public Radio. She joined the station in November 2014.