The most rare U.S. species of bumblebee, last seen in 1956, has turned up once again in the White Mountains of south-central New Mexico. Called “Cockerell’s Bumblebee,” this prized pollinator is known from an area of less than 300 square miles, giving it the most limited range of any bumblebee species in the world.
“Most bumblebees in the U.S. are known from dozens to thousands of specimens, but not this species,” entomologist Douglas Yanega said. He is part of the University of California, Riverside, team that identified the three newest specimens of Cockerell’s Bumblebee. Collected on weeds along a highway north of Cloudcroft, New Mexico, on Aug. 31, 2011, these new bees bring the known total to 36.
Any story about bees surviving in the wild is uplifting news in light of the well-documented decline of bees worldwide. Recently the U.N. reported bee losses of up 85 percent in some areas of the industrialized northern hemisphere, where pesticides, pollution, and parasites may all be to blame.
Cockerell’s Bumblebee, among nearly 50 species of bumblebees native to the U.S., has avoided many of these threats, living on protected national forest and tribal lands. For that reason, it is not especially surprising for an insect species to be rediscovered after decades, when people might otherwise imagine that it may have gone extinct.
“When an insect species is very rare, or highly localized, it can fairly easily escape detection for very long periods of time,” Yanega says. “There are many precedents 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.”
Indeed, entomologists rediscover “lost” insect species and discover entirely new ones on a regular basis. Yanega and his colleagues at the Entomology Research Museum in Riverside alone turn up several dozen species every year, primarily in groups such as bees, wasps, beetles, and plant bugs.