‘Citizen scientist’ finds rare parasitic bumble bee identified through the Shutterbee Project

    By Kathleen Berger, Executive Producer for Science and Technology

    Ned Siegel observes the activity in the garden he created, that purposefully has a variety of mostly native plants and flowers. They attract a variety of bees. He documents the arrival of the little visitors by taking their pictures!

    “There are thousands of native bees,” Siegel said.

    And hundreds of photos! Siegel uploads the photos to a research-based program called the Shutterbee Citizen Science Program. Shutterbee uses the iNaturalist app to identify bees in the St. Louis metropolitan area. Siegel is a trained citizen scientist in the Shutterbee project. It all started when the retired biochemist became a master gardener and naturalist.

    “I actually have a degree in Botonny,” he said. “So, I was always interested in plants.”

    When Siegel became a citizen scientist for Shutterbee, he participated in Shutterbee surveys of his garden in Belleville, Illinois.

    “I do that approximately every two weeks. So, in a 30-minute walk taking pictures of bees, I’ll just have probably hundreds of pictures sometimes.”

    Then one morning in late July, the walk was like any other until Siegel photographed one bumble bee. He didn’t think anything of it when he uploaded the photos to Shutterbee using the iNaturalist app. That’s what started all the buzz!

    “Boom, boom, boom, boom! All experts saying, ‘Wait a minute. This is a rare bee!”

     Webster University Biology Professor Nicole Miller-Struttmann said Siegel photographed a rare parasitic bumble bee. It’s the Lemon Cuckoo bumble bee.

    “Which is a rare bee found in Missouri,” said Miller-Struttman, co-creator of Shutterbee. “And it hasn’t been found in the St. Louis metropolitan area since the 1800s, 1854.”

    That’s seven years before the Civil War.

    “It has been documented in Southern Illinois and in Northern Illinois more recently,” Miller-Struttman said. “It’s a cuckoo bee, kind of like a cuckoo bird. It lays its larvae in the nests of other bees. So, it doesn’t actually care for its young. It lets other bees do that. So that’s sort of a unique natural history or lifestyle, if you will, that requires a high population of other kinds of bees. So, in order to find parasitic bees, you have to have enough of their host bees.”

    In the moments the rare parasitic bumble bee was being identified, the research team was buzzing with excitement.

    “It was verified by myself as well as several other specialists,” she said. “One of the things that this finding demonstrates is that at least in the region where Ned collected, where there’s a high enough abundance of other bees, this rare cuckoo bee can persist. Now, why we haven’t seen that bee since 1854? Part of that is how much are we searching for it? So, you always have to acknowledge that maybe we weren’t looking that hard for it.”

    Shutterbee is meant to be that ‘busy bee’ that’s all about bees!

    “We’ve been doing this project for about four years,” said Miller-Struttmann. “We got some really interesting results that demonstrate how what you do locally actually really matters. St. Louis has a historically high bee diversity, in part because of our unique sort of ecological placement. We have lots of different habitats in a close area. And that influences what bees are found in the city.”

    She said this rare bee sighting is important when studying bees and climate change.

    “Species are shifting as it gets warmer. They’re moving towards the poles. So, it’s exciting to see this bee who’s at the southern end of its range, still persisting here. That is a good thing because it’s implying that they’re able to, at least so far, survive despite warming. All we know is that we found this bee and it’s still hanging on!”

    And now with the latest buzz happening in the St. Louis area, maybe more people will become a citizen scientist like Ned Siegel.

    “I don’t know why I saw the Lemon Cuckoo bumble bee when I did,” Siegel said. “The plant that she was feeding upon is our native purple coneflower. A lot of the bees use that plant.”

    Siegel has been looking for the Lemon Cuckoo bee ever since!

    “I haven’t seen it. No, and I haven’t seen it since. I was lucky, you know. But I carry my phone with me anytime I’m out here putzing in the garden, thinking maybe I’ll see her.”