Have you seen this bee? How you can help scientists spot endangered bumble bees

Islanders got a taste of how they can help conserve bumble bee populations on Prince Edward Island on Tuesday, just by using their smartphones. 

Victoria MacPhail, a York University PhD student who is conducting research on insect conservation, took Islanders through the Legacy Garden at the P.E.I. Farm Centre with the aim of showing them how they can help in collecting valuable data on species at risk, through citizen science and app technology. 

Citizen science is a way of crowdsourcing data from ordinary people, who often have no scientific background. 

The Island is thought to be home to about 14 different species of bumble bees but some haven’t been seen in decades, MacPhail said. 

Gypsy cuckoo and yellow-banded bumble bees

A couple of species MacPhail is on the lookout for are the gypsy cuckoo bumble bee and the yellow-banded bumble bee.

Cuckoo bumble bees like to take over the nests of other bumble bees, MacPhail said, and on P.E.I. they have been taking over nests of the yellow-banded bumble bee.

The yellow-banded bumble bee is also in decline on the Island.

“It’s still here on the Island but it’s considered special concern across the country … it’s declining quite a bit,” she said. 

A part of MacPhail’s research for her PhD has been working on Bumble Bee Watch — an app developed by Sheila Colla, an assistant professor at York University — meant for ordinary people to help collect data. 

The app and website launched in 2014.

So far, Bumble Bee Watch, which now also has mobile apps for iPhone and Android, has received 40,000 observations with photos from 8,300 users across North America. They include some recent recorded sightings of the endangered rusty-patched bumblebee in Minnesota, which hasn’t been spotted in Canada since 2009.

While numbers are very low for the yellow-banded bumble bee, MacPhail said, through use of the app there have been two recorded sightings on P.E.I.

We’ve only had 55 observations in total over the last five years of the program from P.E.I.— Victoria MacPhail

“I’ve seen it myself on the Island. So it’s still here, it’s just low, low numbers,” she said. 

MacPhail said knowing what kind of habitat rare species need and where they nest — information that citizen scientists help provide — is crucial for their conservation, so those areas can be protected.

User-friendly app

“I really want to promote people getting out [and] participating in this program because as of last night, we’ve only had 55 observations in total over the last five years of the program from P.E.I. and from about 20 different people,” MacPhail said. 

No matter where you are, you can find life around you.— Victoria MacPhail

The app, MacPhail said, is very easy to use. 

“Grab a camera, take pictures of a bumble bee, send it to our website or through our phone app and voila. An expert like myself will tell you what species it is,” she said.

“No matter where you are, you can find life around you,” MacPhail said. 

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