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It's been ten years since he last spotted
the Franklin Bumblebee
He was an old man who spent his days alone in the mountains of southern Oregon looking for a bee. He hadn’t seen the bee — no one had seen this particular bee species — in 10 years when he asked me to join him.
It was August, the last breath of summer bee season. Robbin Thorp, then 82, a retired entomologist from University of California-Davis, wore a safari hat, tinted bifocals and a T-shirt with an image of Franklin’s bumblebee printed on the chest. That black-and-yellow bee, which looks like so many others except for the characteristic “U” on its back, is the object of Thorp’s obsession. It’s a creature he told me flies through his dreams, always just out of reach.
Finding it — believing it can be found — is what brings him to this spot 6,400 feet above sea level, near the base of a ski lift, even though his gait is wobbly now and these craggy, alpine ravines could break a 80-something hip.
Franklin’s bumblebee is a species other scientists fear extinct. But Thorp will barely entertain that idea.
“When things are rare, they’re really, really hard to find,” he told me.
Thorp can be matter of fact like that.
And so the old man keeps looking, bee net in one hand and “bee vacuum” in the other. He walks from one flower to the next, inspecting the pollinators. If he sees one that might be Franklin’s he’ll slurp it into the bee vacuum, which looks like a child’s water gun. Then he closely inspects it: “Just another one of the common bumblebees.”
He does this on his own time and for no pay, usually alone.
Day after day, year after year.
It’s almost like something out of Hemingway: The old man and the bee.
I’ll admit that when I met Thorp on August 8, 2016, the day before the 10-year anniversary of his last sighting of Franklin’s bumblebee, which occurred on that very slope, I had my doubts about his quest. To me, the bee hunt seemed like a Sisyphean task. That’s because scientists say we are entering a new age of mass extinction. Species are disappearing at something like 100 times the normal rate, and biologists fear three-quarters of all species could disappear in the next couple centuries if we don’t stop polluting the atmosphere and bulldozing habitat.
In that context, it’s hard not to see Thorp as an old man living in an old world, one where a species reasonably can be expected to survive one year to the next.
We don’t live in that world anymore.
But after two days with Thorp I realized that he’s on to something.
It’s precisely when we stop looking for species that we allow them to vanish.
25% of bumblebees in North America are at risk for extinction
I’m sure by now you’ve read something about bees being in trouble. Maybe you’ve heard of “colony collapse disorder,” or perhaps there’s a do-gooder on your Facebook page who is raising a beehive in her yard and takes way too many selfies in a space-age suit.
All of that barely scratches the surface of the trouble bees face.
There are roughly 20,000 species of bees in the world — that’s more than birds or amphibians or reptiles or mammals — and the Western honey bee, the one you usually hear about, the one that lives in big, social hives and is domesticated to produce honey -- is just one of those species.
To get a sense of what the other 19,999 are like, it helps to talk to Sam Droege, a researcher at the US Geological Survey’s Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab in Maryland. Droege spends his days taking super-high-resolution photos of dead bee specimens, some of which come from natural history museums and others that are pulled from field research. One benefit of the work is that it provides a detailed catalog of species, in case they disappear.
But the photos are also just really cool — in that way laymen can appreciate. Some of the images first got popular on a subpage of the website Reddit.
We’re losing this diversity fast.
So that’s the laymen's argument for why bees matter.
Here’s the self-interested one: Bees help pollinate 35% of the world’s food, and bumblebees, of which Franklin’s bumblebee is (or was) one, pollinate everything from tomatoes to cranberries and blueberries and melons. Yet they live in underground colonies, caring for a queen. And they don’t make honey, so you don’t hear as much about them from journalists.
Sarina Jepsen, deputy chair of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s bumblebee specialist group, and a director at the Xerces Society, an environmental nonprofit, told me about 25% of bumblebees in North America are at risk for extinction. “If you think about it, that’s a really strikingly high percentage of a fauna to be declining — and in some cases really crashing,” said Leif Richardson, a postdoctoral fellow at the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics.
And much of the vanishing is undocumented.
“It’s abysmal what we know right now,” Droege, from USGS, told me.
“There are just too few people on the ground looking.”
‘It was just gone’
Robbin Thorp started looking for Franklin’s bumblebee in the 1960s. He’d taken an entomology course at the University of Michigan and got hooked on the invisible insect world. It’s an obsession that was, from the start, both personal and professional. He told me his first wife did not love the fact that he kept stacks of insect eggs and other specimens in their apartment.
“She was not a naturalist,” he said, laughing. “But she put up with it.”
In 1998, he began to study Franklin’s bumblebee in earnest.
In part, he was interested in whether the bee should be listed under the Endangered Species Act. But he also just wanted to know what this bee was all about. Why did it live only in northern California and southern Oregon when so many other bee species had wider ranges? Which flowers did it prefer? Which plants and potentially crops would be lost without it?
Back then, the bee was relatively abundant — not the most common, but far from the least. “I could walk down and see (Franklin’s bumblebee) on every patch of flowers,” he told me.
“I’d see 15, 20 of ‘em in just a short distance.”
A year or two later, the bee became more difficult to find.
Then all of a sudden: “It was just gone.”
Thorp’s work shifted from what-is-this-bee-up-to to where-the-hell-did-it-go. The bee scientist, in a sense, became a detective. Who or what could have killed Franklin’s bumblebee?
Thorp hoped finding it might offer some clues.