Rarest Bumblebee in US Discovered In New Mexico
December 6, 2011

Rarest Bumblebee In US Discovered In New Mexico

Researchers from University of California Riverside (UCR), have recently rediscovered one of the rarest species of bumblebee in the United States - one that has not been seen in over 50 years. The Cockerell´s Bumblebee was found in the White Mountains of south-central New Mexico this last summer.

Douglas Yanega, senior museum scientist at UC Riverside explains the rarity of this find, "Most bumblebees in the US are known from dozens to thousands of specimens, but not this species."

"The area it occurs in is infrequently visited by entomologists, and the species has long been ignored because it was thought that it was not actually a genuine species, but only a regional color variant of another well-known species."

There are nearly fifty species of native US bumblebees, Yanega explains, with some nearing extinction, such as a species known as Franklin´s Bumblebee, which has been seen only once in the last twelve years.

That species, as rare as it is, is known from a distribution covering some 13,000 square miles, while the latest find, Cockerell´s Bumblebee, with the most limited range of any known bumblebee species in the world, is known from an area of less than 300 square miles.

"There is much concern lately about declines in our native bumblebee species, and as we now have tools at our disposal to assess their genetic makeup, these new specimens give fairly conclusive evidence that Cockerell´s Bumblebee is a genuine species," Yanega explains.

"With appropriate comparative research, we hope to be able to determine which other species is its closest living relative. Given that this bee occurs in an area that´s largely composed of National Forest and Apache tribal land, it´s unlikely to be under serious threat of habitat loss at the moment. Since its biology is completely unknown, however, it nevertheless may require some more formal assessment in the future."

Rediscovering and insect species after decades, when people might otherwise imagine that it may have gone extinct, is not an infrequent occurrence Yanega points out.

Entomologists from UCR rediscover many such "lost" insect species and discover entirely new species on a regular basis, at the rate of several dozen species every year.

Primarily in groups such as bees, wasps, beetles, and plant bugs, however, approximately 8 million species are in existence, the vast majority being insects of which only about 1 million have been described.

"When an insect species is very rare, or highly localized, it can fairly easily escape detection for very long periods of time," he said. "There are many precedents — some of them very recently in the news, in fact — of insects that have been unseen for anywhere from 70 to more than 100 years, suddenly turning up again when someone either got lucky enough, or persistent enough, to cross paths with them again."

"It is much harder to give conclusive evidence that an insect species has gone extinct than for something like a bird or mammal or plant."

Concerning future research with Cockerell´s Bumblebee, Yanega said that DNA sequencing was carried out at UCR, as part of a larger study on wasp and bee relationships.

"The first step is to come to a firm conclusion regarding the status of this bee as a species," he said. "The second step is spreading the word to the scientific community that this bee deserves some attention, as it has been completely overlooked. Here at UCR we may or may not be involved beyond that point, in gathering data on the distribution and biology of this species, but at the very least our discovery can get the proverbial ball rolling."


Image Caption: Cockerell´s Bumblebee. Photo credit: G. Ballmer, UC Riverside


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