Bumblebee research in full bloom at Fort Vancouver

National park site population one of eight included in survey

By Tom Vogt, Columbian science, military & history reporter

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Eight Northwest parks form science network

The Fort Vancouver National Historic Site is part of the National Park Service’s North Coast and Cascades Science Learning Network.

Other Washington members are Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve, on Whidbey Island; Seattle’s Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park unit; Mount Rainier National Park; North Cascades National Park; Olympic National Park; and San Juan Island National Historical Park.

The Lewis and Clark National Historical Trail includes sites in Washington and Oregon, as well as several other states.

The network was formed because the managers charged with preserving national parks need to know which resources are actually in the parks and what condition they’re in.

The Park Service started documenting status and trends with a national program of inventory and monitoring in 2001 to assess management practices and provide early warning of impending threats.

“We can use national parks for scientific inquiry,” said Greg Shine, chief ranger at Fort Vancouver and a member of the network’s steering committee. The research is to be shared to promote the stewardship of natural resources, Shine said.

Nationwide, there are 15 research learning centers. Most are located in a single national park.

— Tom Vogt

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Thirty-eight bumblebee species are native to the contiguous 48 states, while honeybees were imported from Europe.

Bumblebees are not honey producers. “They make a small amount of honey-like substance,” USDA entomologist Jamie Strange said, but it is thinner than honey and it spoils quickly.

The bumblebees showed a lot more life than most of the items that get identified and catalogued by researchers at Fort Vancouver.

The bees bounced from bloom to bloom, from purple cardoon to red dahlia, in the English-style garden just outside the fort stockade.

Occasionally, one of the black-and-yellow insects found itself inside a small plastic jar, staring back at someone who was learning the ABCs of bumblebees.

The recent afternoon session was part of Jamie Strange's busy-as-a-bee visit to the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site. Strange is a research entomologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, specializing in issues related to bumblebees.

Strange was in Vancouver as part of a survey of bumblebee populations in eight National Park Service sites, mostly in Washington. His survey was sandwiched between the afternoon workshop on basic bumblebee biology and identification, and an evening public lecture on

North America's declining populations of the important plant pollinator.

Thirty percent of the North American bumblebee species are in decline, Strange said, and one looks to be extinct.

The bumblebee decline mirrors the colony collapse disorder that is taking a toll on honeybee hives.

The bumblebee survey was funded by the Park Service's North Coast and Cascades Science Learning Network, which includes Fort Vancouver.

In the recent afternoon survey in the area outside the stockade, "We caught 45 bees and identified six species," Strange said.

The goal is not a precise inventory of bumblebees or nests. Bumblebees are not hive-dwellers, by the way; they often nest in burrows in the ground, or in compost piles.

The team works for a total of 90 minutes (three people work for 30 minutes, or two people work for 45 minutes) in an area about 100 meters in diameter.

That provides one yardstick for population density, Strange said. But he was more interested in how many species of bumblebees live at Fort Vancouver.

"What we're concerned about now is a decline in species," he said.

The survey was just the first set of numbers for a long-term monitoring process.

"We don't know a lot about the communities. Who's where?"

The survey will provide that baseline data.

"The idea is to come back and see how things have changed," Strange said.

Since mountains are prominent features in three of the parks -- Olympic, North Cascades and Rainier -- Strange and his research team will be looking to see if the climate changes, which could influence bumblebee distribution.

"Each species has a niche elevation," he said. And unlike birds, which have some choice over where they live, "Bees can't fly north," Strange said.

"Will healthy bumblebees expand and fill in?"

Researchers found spots where that was happening, as Bombus vosnesnskii took over for the declining Bombus occidentalis, or Western bumblebee. It's not an exact match, though.

"Some plants were not visited as much," he said.

Surveying bees is pretty much a catch-and-release process.

"Identifying them on the wing is possible," Strange said, but it has a significant error rate. "If you want to know, you have to catch them."

An ice pack is used to chill a netted bee so it can be temporarily immobilized and identified.

"Within two minutes, the bee is off and flying," Strange said.

One worker bee and one male of each species are sacrificed, as the workshop brochure phrases it, and kept as lab specimens. Weather conditions also are logged and flower samples are collected.

The survey also provided an opportunity to take tissue samples to determine whether populations are genetically connected. That means clipping a middle leg from some of the bees for DNA analysis in the lab.

"It's not used in pollen foraging," Strange said. "Taking a leg is better than putting a bee on a pin. We have a lot of bees on pins."

Tom Vogt: 360-735-4558; http://www.twitter.com/col_history;tom.vogt@columbian.com.