Is Franklin’s bumble bee extinct? Conservationists say it’ll take years to know for sure
Over 70 people scoured Mt. Ashland for a Franklin's bumble bee as part of the annual Bee Blitz. It was the biggest turnout in the history of the survey, which has taken place in July for over a decade.
After over a decade of searching, researchers don’t know if Franklin’s bumble bee will ever be seen again. Last week, over 70 people searched Mt. Ashland for a specimen as part of the annual Bee Blitz. It was the biggest turnout in the history of the survey, which has taken place in July for over a decade.
The team of biologists, citizen scientists, volunteers, landowners and students fanned out through the alpine meadows with butterfly nets in hand, searching among the wildflowers for Franklin’s bumble bee.
“I hope, really, that we’re going to find this bumble bee,” said second-year participant Eva Phiemann. “It’s kind of sad that it’s become extinct. Hopefully not, hopefully we will come find that area where it’s still there.”
Before Franklin’s bumble bee disappeared from the landscape in 2006, it could only be found in five counties between Southwest Oregon and Northern California, which makes it one of the most range-restricted bumblebees in the world. The bee was listed as an endangered species in 2021.
Jeff Everett, the lead biologist for Franklin’s bumble bee and the organizer of the event, said that finding just one specimen of the species would be a major milestone for research and conservation.
“If we can locate Franklin's on the landscape, we can not only bring more meaningful conservation tools to bear to protect and recover the species, but we can also learn more about why it was here and take some of those lessons and apply them to other at-risk pollinators,” Everett said.
Bumble bees in the west are struggling because of challenges like pesticide use, habitat destruction and disease. The last person who saw Franklin’s bumble bee, entomologist Dr. Robin Thorp, theorized that their population plummeted because of disease, however researchers aren’t sure.
According to Everett, Thorp was legendary in the bumble bee community before he passed away in 2019.
“That man knew more about bees, and bumblebees in particular, than I could ever hope to know,” Everett said. “What really separated him out was his extremely gentle, but relentlessly enthusiastic nature. He was somebody that people gravitated to, because you were always learning something from what he had to say.”
Some scientists estimate that roughly one in three bites of food we eat depends on animal pollinators.
One source of hope for Franklin’s bumble bee is that the next generation of bee hunters is starting to take an interest. The youngest members of the Bee Blitz team were three-year-old Phoebe Fukuda and four-year-old Kai Colyer.
“It's really great for our kids to be able to see what we do and to kind of get them interested in the outdoors, at least, if not in conservation in general,” said Zia Fukuda, who works with the Bureau of Land Management.
According to biologists, the best ways to help bees are to plant native wildflowers and avoid pesticide use.
No one found Franklin’s bumble bee this year, but it usually takes decades of surveying before a species is officially declared extinct.
After 16 years without a sighting, it may seem unlikely that the bee still exists at all. But lead biologist Jeff Everett says most of the prime habitat for Franklin’s bumble bee has not been surveyed yet.
"We've got a long ways to go," Everett said.