BELLEVILLE, Ill. – A Belleville man made an important scientific discovery in the extensive flower garden outside his home, creating a worldwide buzz.
It’s a rare bee called the Lemon Cuckoo Bumble Bee (Bombus citrinus). Retired biochemist Ned Siegel took photos of it two Saturdays ago. The discovery was hardly an accident.
Siegel is a ‘citizen scientist’ in Webster University’s 4-year-old ‘Shutterbee’ study.
About 150 other volunteers in the St. Louis region have been taking photos of bees with their smartphones every two weeks for the past four years. Through the iNaturalist app, the photos are shared with experts and scientists all over the world.
Siegel started getting messages from the experts about his photos: his bee was rare, indeed, found in the northern and northeast United States but not Belleville.
“They were going back to Smithsonian record,” Siegel said. “There was one spotted in 1859 in Carlinville, Illinois, by a noted bee person… when I saw that all coming in, I started buzzing.”
“This is cool,” said Nicole Miller-Struttmann, a biology professor at Webster University Biology Professor Nicole Miller-Struttmann, who manages the bee study. “To see this in somebody’s backyard garden is even more exciting because we’re learning more and more about how we can support pollinators in just small patches.”
It’s especially cool, given the global decline in pollinator populations. The Lemon Cuckoo does not pollinate but lays its babies in the nests of bumblebees that do.
“This means that bee populations are good enough in an area to support this rare, parasitic bee that is good for pollination,” Miller-Struttmann said.
It also means purposefully built gardens with a variety of native plants in place of sprawling lawns may have a role in supporting bee populations. Their populations matter anywhere there are human populations.
“That means when individuals make an impact in their gardens, that influences those bee populations, which is a very direct effect and pretty exciting,” Miller-Struttmann said. “Cities are growing in most areas of the world. Those kinds of impacts and understanding those kinds of impacts for pollination is a global issue. If our bumblebee populations are high, that’s better for blueberries, tomatoes, peppers—the types of plants that really require those specialist pollinators… with climate change, we’re seeing shifts in species ranges, but for whatever reason, that species is holding on here, and that’s promising.”
So promising, the world is taking note of a bee found in Belleville.