“People don’t come to Denali and other parks in Alaska to watch bumblebees, but they should,” says Jessica Rykken, an entomologist at Denali National Park and Reserve. The “Last Frontier” state may be known for its super-wild animals, from moose bears, but on a smaller scale, the diversity of bumblebees (or bees, depending on who you’re looking for) is unusually large and drives entire ecosystems.
“Introducing that next generation of plants into the habitat of a caribou or elk or any large herbivore, and then a carnivore that depends on them, is all about pollinators,” says wildlife biologist Casey Burns of the Alaska Land Management Bureau. “I probably think they’re the most important group of wildlife for ecological function.”
Bumblebees are not the only domestic pollinators in the northernmost American state. There are a number of other domestic bee species, and domestic flies also play a significant role (as do several butterfly species). But Alaskan bumblebees also stand out in number – “Overall we have a fairly small variety of bees, but we have a very high proportion of bumblebees,” Rykken says – and for the reason of their success. And while many species of bumblebees in the lower 48 are decaying, Alaskan members of the genus Bomb it seems to be progressing. Now researchers and conservators are making an unprecedented effort to figure out how many bees, including dumplings, are buzzing around their vast and largely unexplored condition. The first project of bee atlases in Alaska is underway, and bumblebees will play the main role.
Of the nearly 50 species of bumblebees documented across the United States, nearly half can be found in Alaska, including four species that cannot be found anywhere else in the country. Large-bodied and covered with thick, insulating hair (at the call of Zoom, Rykken holds a board of greasy, hairy, pinned patterns, some thumb sizes), bumbles have other cold weather survival skills, twerking. Although bees in general can vibrate their muscles quickly in flight, regardless of flying, to create heat, bumblebees are especially good at it.
“They use those muscles to fly to raise their body temperature by 30 degrees in five minutes,” Rykken says. This rapid rise in heat allows them to fly on cold, even snowy days, when other insects are grounded. And while other social bees, including honey bees, will gather to keep their queen, brood and warm to each other, bumblebees can survive solo. A Bomb the queen can actually transfer the heat generated by the muscles to fly into the abdomen to keep the eggs warm.
“They thermoregulate quite amazingly,” says entomologist Derek Sikes, curator of the insect collection at the University of Alaska Museum. Sikes says that bumblebees are “actually warm-blooded: they generate heat, it’s just not constant, like mammals do.” But it’s internal, not just because of sunbathing. “
Natural life cycle Bomb the species corresponds to long winters and short summers in Alaska. In August, when the first frosts usually arrive, the queen begins a long hibernation underground, alone. It emerges in the spring, finds a nest site and produces worker bees and eventually potential new queens and males to mate with them. As August approaches again, successfully mated, the new queens will find a place to lie low during the winter. “Everyone else – the old queen, the workers and the men – are dying,” Rykken says. Although many other social species of bees overwinter in clusters of thousands, the solo strategy of bumblebees requires fewer resources and is more efficient for their environment.