Montana has more native bumble bee species than have been documented in any other state in the country, according to Montana State University scientists.
That revelation comes out of the state's first inventory of bumble bees, conducted by MSU researchers who published their work this week in the Annals of the Entomological Society of America, the country’s flagship entomology journal.
Co-authors on the paper, titled “Bumble Bees of Montana,” were MSU entomology professors Michael Ivie and Kevin O’Neill, research scientist Casey Delphia, and former entomology graduate student Amelia Dolan.
Ivie said that because of Montana's size and diverse landscapes, the state is home to a large number of bee species.
“Our research shows 28 different species of Bombus, with four more expected to make the list," he said. "That’s the largest number of bumble bee species recorded for a state in the entire country."
Ivie added that the research project greatly expanded the known distribution of the bumble bee species in Montana, with at least four species now documented from each of Montana’s 56 counties.
To get to those numbers, the researchers counted existing specimens in the Montana Agricultural Experiment Station’s Montana Entomology Collection, those from existing MSU projects and material in other museums.
Then, they enlisted MSU faculty, staff, students and alumni from across campus and the state to collect and contribute specimens from under-sampled areas.
“It was amazing because we had people collecting specimens across the state, in varying elevations and diverse ecosystems — areas we alone wouldn’t have had access to in the time that we had to complete the project,” Dolan said.
Once the MSU researchers cleaned, examined and identified the specimens, Dolan and Delphia pored over bumble bee research records spanning 125 years and 25 natural history collections. They consulted with national bee labs and compared data sets so they could identify and document specimens.
Because so little is known about bumble bees in Montana, much of the species identification was tedious, and it look a lot of comparing and contrasting with other collections, Delphia said. Especially difficult specimens were sent to a world expert at University of California, Davis, for verification.
“Montana is a bit of a black hole when it comes to bee species records and information, so you’re working with very little documentation to begin with,” Delphia said.
Delphia said the bumble bees of Montana collection is an important beginning in understanding and identifying the rest of the state’s native bee species.
“Many people ask if Montana bees reflect a national bee decline, but we can’t answer that without first knowing what’s already here," she said. "This is a first step to understanding and documenting what other bee species might be here, so we can start looking at bigger questions.”
That Montana has the largest number of bumble bee species of any state in the country is of scientific importance, Ivie said.
“Nationally, bees in general, and bumble bees specifically, are in decline, and they serve as critical pollinators for the world’s food supply," Ivie said. "The first step toward understanding measures to protect them is to understand what their species numbers look like so that we can build on monitoring efforts.”
Dolan said the idea to document Montana’s bumble bee communities stemmed from a project during her time as a graduate student in MSU’s entomology program. Dolan was researching insects associated with Montana’s huckleberries.
Dolan noticed a high number of bumble bees visiting huckleberry plants. Around that same time, Dolan said a new book, "Bumble Bees of North America," was published that provided a reference guide for bumble bee identification.
“We started seeing that the book’s species’ maps didn’t quite match what I was seeing in the field,” Dolan said. “We started to wonder if the bumble bee specimen data I was collecting for my huckleberry research might be applied to larger-scale, statewide faunal inventory.”
In fact, the newly published paper largely stemmed from Dolan’s master’s thesis. Dolan now works at Athlos Academies, a charter school management company, in Boise, Idaho.
The "Bumble Bees of Montana" reference collection is currently housed in the Montana Entomology Collection at MSU. There is also an interactive online map showing bumble bee species by county in Montana.
MSU is home to a new Center for Pollinator Research, a research group focused on improving pollinator health and stemming pollinator losses through research, education and outreach.