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Lemon cuckoo bumblebee sparks a buzz with rare sighting in Belleville

Ned Siegel
Ned Siegel, of Belleville, snapped this photograph of a lemon cuckoo bumblebee in his backyard, which has made biologists across the region abuzz with excitement for the species' first appearance since the late 1800s.

A rare bee made an appearance in the St. Louis region for the first time since the late 1800s.

It’s called the lemon cuckoo bumblebee. The bee was spotted in Ned Siegel’s garden in Belleville this summer during the annual Shutterbee Citizen Science Program survey. For four years, Siegel has voluntarily photographed bees for the survey. But this time, he had no idea he hit the jackpot.

“I knew it was different, but I didn’t know it was going to be that different,” Siegel said. “So, it came as a shock.”

Siegel uploaded the photo to the program’s shared database called iNaturalist, where it was later confirmed by bee experts. Still, Siegel doesn’t know why he got so lucky. He’s humble about his garden and is unsure what exactly attracted the lemon cuckoo bumblebee to it. However, he does put in a lot of work to maintain his garden.

“I’ve been enriching my garden with respect to the diversity of native plants that I have,” Siegel said. “At the same time, I’m removing some of the nonnative.”

The sighting has led to a buzz in the region’s bee community. St. Louis Public Radio’s Marissanne Lewis-Thompson spoke with Nicole Miller-Struttmann, an associate professor of biology at Webster University and the head of the Shutterbee program, about what this news tells us about the state of bees in the area.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Marissanne Lewis-Thompson: When you saw that the photo was indeed an image of a lemon cuckoo bumblebee, were you aware of how big of a deal that was?

Nicole Miller-Struttmann: We knew pretty quickly. I actually got flagged on it from my co-creator of Shutterbee, Nina Fogel. She sent googly eyes with it like, ‘oh, look we have here.’ And I looked it up. And I was like, ‘all right, we need to verify before we get too excited.’ And lo and behold we had a really cool rare bee.

Lewis-Thompson: What makes this bee unique?

Miller-Struttmann: It’s a type of bee called a parasitic bumblebee, a kleptoparasitic bumblebee. So a stealing bee. What they do is they lay their larvae in the nests of other bumblebees. So they don’t actually take care of their young. They allow their neighbors to do it for them, if you will. Inherently that type of a lifestyle, if you will, because you’re so dependent on another species, the population sizes tend to be kind of small anyway. So, they don’t tend to be super super abundant. But this bee in particular, we’re at the southern and western part of its range. And it’s been known from the area. But it’s been a long time since we’ve seen it. It hasn’t been seen since 2008 in southern Missouri. And in the St. Louis region, it hasn’t been found since the late 1800s.

Lewis-Thompson: This particular bee is experiencing a population decline. How has climate change led them here?

Miller-Struttmann: We think perhaps in Illinois it might be stable, but we don’t really have quite enough data to know because it’s so rare, right? But what is the future and one of the reasons why I was excited to see this still, because as I mentioned, it’s at the southern part of its range, it’s still managing to hold on. Bumblebees across the globe are exhibiting population decline. So their populations are getting smaller because of [the] heat. They have behaviors that help them manage it to some degree, but for species that are in areas that are heating up and that are maybe at the edge of their range, well that’s where we’re really seeing the declines the most.

Lewis-Thompson: These bees depend on a healthy hive for a chance of survival. What does that say about the state of bees in the area?

Miller-Struttmann: I think it’s promising. The incidents of rare species still finding rare species, that gives us some information that at least around here there are pockets that are doing pretty well. And that is encouraging.

Lewis-Thompson: What could other citizen scientists be doing to possibly help those particular bee populations thrive?

Miller-Struttmann: Native organisms, they need some of the resources that we often cut back at the end of the year. So, if you have a little patch of lawn, or if you have a balcony that’s currently empty that would just love to have some flowers in it, providing lots of different kinds of flowers from the very beginning in April all the way through September and October that is really helpful. But also maybe not cleaning quite so much. We tend to cut everything back in the fall or in the spring or we mulch over bare ground. So if we can allow a little bit of bare ground, which is where most bumblebees nest and many other native bees or if we can leave up some twigs and you can cut them in a way that looks nice, just as long as you leave about 10 to 15 inches or so, the bees will find them and they will use them as nests.

Marissanne is the afternoon newscaster at St. Louis Public Radio.