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The rusty patched bumblebee, a very important pollinator, is on the edge of extinction

American scientists have achieved a significant milestone in bee research that offers fresh hope for the endangered rusty patched bumblebee.

The scientific community is buzzing with excitement today over an announcement by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Agricultural Research Service (ARS), and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS).

In a joint effort, these agencies have released a high-resolution map of the rusty patched bumblebee’s genome. This map, teeming with intricate details, may pave the way to pull this native pollinator back from the brink of extinction.

Rusty patched bumblebee part of Beenome 100

This significant achievement is part of a larger, pioneering initiative known as Beenome 100. This project is spearheaded by the ARS and the University of Illinois.

Beenome 100 aims to create a comprehensive library of detailed genome maps for over a hundred diverse bee species found across the United States.

With the big questions surrounding bees, the researchers believe that this invaluable genetic repository can help provide some answers. They are hopeful to uncover what genetic variances render a bee species more vulnerable to climate change or increase their susceptibility to pesticides.

Rusty patched bumblebee is especially important to ecosystems

Among its kin, the rusty patched bumblebee, scientifically known as Bombus affinis, holds a special place. It plays a crucial role as a pollinator of several wildflowers like bergamot and milkweed.

The rusty patch bumblebee is also very important for the wellbeing of other crops, such as cranberries, plums, apples, and alfalfa. However, its population has seen a drastic decline of nearly 87 percent over the past two decades.

In 2017, the species received the “endangered” tag. This demonstrates the severity of their situation. Bombus affinis once thriving across 28 states in the Upper Midwest and Northeast and two Canadian provinces.

However, their habitat now has shrunk to isolated patches in 13 states and one Canadian province. Their regular sightings are limited to only a few places. These include the Minneapolis-St. Paul area in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Thrilled to have the rusty patched bumblebee genome

Jonathan B. Uhaud Koch, a research entomologist with the ARS Pollinating Insect-Biology, Management, Systematics Research Unit in Logan, Utah, offered insights on the significant opportunities this genome map presents.

“With the amount of detailed information that we and other researchers now have access to in this newly sequenced genome, we have an opportunity to find a whole different approach to strengthening rusty patched bumblebee populations,” Koch explained.

Why the rusty patched bumblebee is endangered

Factors such as habitat loss, diminished variety of nectar sources, climate change, pesticide exposure, increased pathogens, and pests have all contributed to the species’ decline.

Among these, the fungal pathogen Varimorpha bombi has especially impacted many bee populations. Koch was astounded by the volume of Varimorpha genetic material found in the bumblebee sample used to develop the Beenome 100 genome map.

Koch said, “We used a small piece of abdominal tissue from a single male collected from a nest in Minnesota, which, given the endangered status of the rusty patched bumble bee, seemed like a very good idea.”

He added, “It’s only with the most cutting-edge equipment that you could resolve an entire genome of 15,252 genes and 18 chromosomes from a tiny bit of one bumble bee.”

Around 4.5 percent of the sequenced DNA came from Microsporidia. This is a fungal group that includes Varimorpha bombi. This significant percentage of DNA linked to Varimorpha bombi highlights the widespread presence of this pathogen in the bee tissue.

How researchers will use this new Beenome 100 data

The availability of a high-quality genome can help scientists identify genetic differences between bee populations that are faring well and those in decline, as Koch suggested.

He added, “This may give us a handle on identifying the genes that give the more capable population its flexibility to deal with its environment. We may also gain a better understanding of the genetic basis of bumblebee behavior, physiology and adaptation to changing environmental conditions.”

Researchers now have the ability to pinpoint the most successful genes that equip a bee population to thrive under local conditions. This means they can start working on giving these pollinators a much-needed leg up. This genetic knowledge will be invaluable in devising strategies to restore the rusty patched bumblebee populations in various areas through captive breeding programs.

Genome opens doors to new conservation strategies

The in-depth analysis of the rusty patched bumblebee’s genome is a significant step towards understanding the genetic makeup and health of the bee species. It opens the door to new research paths and strategies that could help ensure the survival of this essential pollinator.

Moreover, it underscores the importance of understanding the genetic nuances of these creatures, which are vital to our ecosystem and food supply.

As scientists continue to delve into the world of bees through projects like Beenome 100, there is hope that the plight of the rusty patched bumblebee, and indeed many other bee species, can be addressed more effectively.

The future may indeed be brighter for these remarkable creatures and the ecosystems that depend on them, thanks to these groundbreaking advances in bee research.

More about bees and their importance to the Earth

Bees are more than just insects; they are crucial players in our planet’s ecosystems and our global economy. They provide us with essential services, namely pollination, which allows many plants to reproduce. Here’s a more detailed look at bees and why they are so important:


Bees are some of the most efficient and effective pollinators on Earth. While visiting flowers for nectar, which they convert into energy-rich honey, bees transfer pollen from the male parts of a flower to the female parts.

This fertilization process enables the plant to grow and produce food. Many plants, including numerous fruits and vegetables, depend on this pollination to bear fruit and reproduce. Without bees, our diets would be significantly less diverse and nutritious.

Biodiversity and Ecosystem Health

Bees contribute to complex, interconnected ecosystems that a variety of different species – including humans – rely on for food and habitat. Bees play a part in the food chains and habitats of many other species.

These range from the bird populations that feed on insects to the mammals that rely on berries and seeds that exist due to bee pollination. This biodiversity also ensures a healthier and more robust ecosystem that can withstand various environmental challenges.

Economic Contribution

The economic value of the pollination services provided by bees is immense. According to estimates, bees contribute billions of dollars to the global economy annually through their assistance in producing a large proportion of the food that ends up on our plates. Without them, the cost of hand-pollinating our crops would be prohibitive.

Honey Production

Bees are also well-known for their honey production, a food product enjoyed by people worldwide. Honey is not only a tasty natural sweetener but also possesses medicinal properties.

Its antioxidant, antibacterial, and anti-inflammatory properties make it a popular choice in traditional and modern medicine. Bee by-products, including beeswax, are used in numerous industries, such as cosmetics and skincare.

Medicinal and Scientific Importance

Bees are also important for their contribution to medicine and science. Bee venom has a variety of medicinal uses, and propolis, a resinous mixture produced by bees, is used for its antimicrobial properties. Bees also play a significant role in scientific research, including studies on insect behavior and other areas of biology.

Unfortunately, many bee species are declining due to a combination of factors, including habitat loss, climate change, pesticide exposure, and diseases. The loss of these essential pollinators could have severe consequences for our food security and ecosystems. Therefore, efforts to protect and conserve bee populations are crucial for the health of our planet and humanity.

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