In fact, the rusty-patched bumble bee, known to scientists as Bombus affinis, is the first bee in North America to be officially declared an endangered species.
Federal Environment Minister Peter Kent added the bee to Canada’s list this summer and federal wildlife advisers warn the bee appears to be on the brink of extinction.
Climate change, pesticides, habitat loss and pathogens are suspects, but no one can say with certainty why it has vanished.
The bee with a distinct orange patch on its abdomen used to forage for pollen and nectar on milkweeds, sunflowers, clovers, berry and fruit blossoms across Southern Ontario and Quebec.
While most people can’t tell one species from another, bumblebees are not interchangeable.
Bombus polaris, which flits around the Arctic pollinating tundra flowers that produce wild berries, has thick pile on its body and can withstand long, dark, sub-zero winters.
The rusty-patched bee was the earliest bee to emerge in the spring in southern Canada and one of the last to stop foraging in the fall. It was also adapt at 'nectar-robbing,' strategically slicing tiny holes in flowers to get at nectar not otherwise reachable with its short tongue, says Colla, who is working on the first field guide to the 42 species of bumble bees in North America.
Unlike honey bees that overwinter in their colonies, bumble bees live from just spring to fall with only queens surviving the winter.
Bumble bee queens emerge in the spring and forage alone for several weeks, replenishing their fat supply 'just like a bear,' says Colla. The queen then makes a nest, often in a rodent burrow, and lays eggs to produce 100 to 200 workers over the summer to take care of the nest and forage for food. In late summer 'new queens and kings' are produced and mate, says Colla. Fertilized new queens go into hibernation while the rest of the bees perish.
Worker bumble bees are common in the summer months and are not much bigger than honey bees. They are usually a combination of black, orange and yellow, unlike honey bees that have brownish bodies, says Colla, who can identify the different species at a glance.
The demise of the rusty-patched bumble bee has been linked to several factors, but the mystery is far from solved.
One suspect is pathogens spread by commercial greenhouse operations that use bumble bees to pollinate tomatoes, cucumbers and other hothouse crops. The commercial bees are allowed to fly in an out of Canadian greenhouses, says Colla, who would like Canada’s hothouse industry to explore keeping its bees inside with screens, as has been proposed in Japan.
Potent pesticides, called neonicotinoids, which are widely used to kill bugs on crops and fleas on domestic pets, may also be associated with the demise of Bombus affinis. Recent European studies suggest the chemicals interfere with bees’ ability to navigate and find their way back to their nests."
To bee or not to bee: Endangered species vanishing without explanation
By Margaret Munro