URI graduate student behind RI bumblebee investigation finds species not found since 2009

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SOUTH KINGSTOWN, RI (WPRI) – As the results of a two-year bumblebee study in Rhode Island concluded that a species was still around although it had not been spotted for more than a decade, she also confirmed that four more have all but disappeared from the state.

Elizabeth Varkonyi, a graduate student from the University of Rhode Island (URI), worked alongside Professor Steven Alm to conduct a bumblebee investigation statewide.

“There had never been a Rhode Island bumblebee survey – or statewide survey of any type of bee – and some species in the historic insect collection of the URIs are no longer found in the state, ”Varkonyi said.

Varkonyi said there are 11 species of bumblebee in Rhode Island, but only six of them have been spotted since 2014.

“I wanted to get a better idea of ​​if these six species were really the only species found here,” she said.

Since 2019, Varkonyi, Alm and two other graduate students have captured bumblebees at 54 sites across the state, while inspecting 48 additional sites with abundant flowers to see which species the bees are pollinating.

Varkonyi’s bumblebee investigation ended earlier this year, and of the more than 7,000 bees it documented, 82% were one of two species – the common eastern bumblebee or the bumblebee. with brown belt.

The Eastern Bumblebee, she said, appears to be the most dominant in the state.

“This could be a factor contributing to the decline of our bumblebees, to competition with this species,” she explained. “Many farmers buy colonies of this species to pollinate their crops, and they could carry pests or diseases that could spread to wild populations of other species.”

The most notable find, according to Varknoyi, was a single American bumblebee in August. Until this year, the species had not been spotted in Rhode Island for over a decade.

“We were really expecting to find the six species that we knew were here, so we couldn’t believe it when we found this seventh species,” she said.

Throughout the investigation, Varkonyi also found 23 yellow bumblebees, another rare and declining species in Rhode Island. Three other bumblebee species were spotted during the investigation, including the two-spotted bumblebee, half-back bumblebee, and confusing bumblebee.

As expected, Varkonyi did not record any of the four remaining bumblebee species listed in the URI’s Historical Insect Collection. She said that while some species are still found in neighboring states, populations of each appear to be in decline.

Varkonyi believes these species could migrate north due to climate change. She said this was of concern as the survey also concluded that bee species all have their preferences when choosing which plants and flowers to pollinate.

“It’s important to have a greater diversity of bumblebee species because we’ve found that each species has its own flower preferences,” Varkonyi explained. “The loss of a species can negatively affect the flowers and crops it pollinates.”

The majority of bumblebees recorded over the past two years have been found on a variety of plants, including lemon balm, St. John’s Wort, wild yellow indigo and red clover.

Varkonyi was recently recognized for her nationwide work at the Entomological Society of America’s annual meeting in Denver earlier this month, where her research poster won first place in the Systematics, Evolution, and Biodiversity category. .

While the recognition came as a surprise, Varkonyi said she was truly thrilled that others were enjoying her findings.

“It’s good to see and it gives me a good feeling that people care about bumblebee conservation,” Varkonyi said.

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