Location: Missouri and worldwide
Project Manager: Ed Spevak
Flagship Species: Bumble bee
Priority: High

Background

Pollination is the cornerstone of most ecosystems. Eighty percent of flowering plants need the help of animals to move pollen for reproduction. In addition, around 25% of birds and many mammals from bears to squirrels feed on the fruits and seeds produced through pollination. Seventy five percent of crop plants grown worldwide for food, beverages, fibers, condiments, spices, and medicines are pollinated by animals. Many people take ecosystem services, like pollination, for granted believing that they are invulnerable and infinitely available. However, our actions through conversion of natural habitats, pollution, misuse of pesticides, and the introduction of alien species and diseases have impacted many species and the service they provide.

In North America bumble bees, sweat bees, carpenter bees, leafcutter bees, and the rest of the 4,000+ species of bees, along with European honey bees, are the most important group of pollinators. Though the disappearance of honey bees has made headlines, we may be experiencing a loss of native bees on a greater scale than honey bees. Franklin's bumble bee was last seen in 2006 and may be extinct. Several other species of bumble bees, masked bees, mason bees and digger bees in the U.S. have disappeared across their ranges. These species may be disappearing due to pesticides, loss of habitat and the introduction of diseases.

St. Louis Interest

The Center for Native Pollinator Conservation (CNPC) works to save pollinators on several levels - from backyards to the far corners of the world. In 2008, the Center, with the University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign, produced the first guide of bumble bees in Illinois and Missouri. The CNPC is committed to producing additional identification guides for local and regional bumble bees and other native bees for students, researchers, farmers, and citizen scientists. The Center conducts bee surveys within the St. Louis area to examine bee diversity and abundance and identify possible areas of conservation concern. At the community level, the CNPC is beginning work with community garden groups, like Gateway Greening, to educate individuals about native bees and develop best bee practices for local gardens.

In 2010, the CNPC teamed up with the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation and the Missouri Department of Transportation to begin developing pollinator rights-of-way. This plan involves improving roadsides by planting them with native plants for pollinators and to develop pollinator gardens at rest areas and welcome centers to help visitors learn about the importance of pollinators and what they can do to help.

Nationally, the Saint Louis Zoo organized and hosted, with the Xerces Society, University of Illinois, and USDA-ARS Bee Research Laboratory, a Species Conservation Strategy Workshop for North American Bumble Bees. Experts from across North America, Europe and Japan representing universities, government agencies, and conservation organizations, met to develop a comprehensive conservation and research action plan for North American bumble bees to help direct the conservation and research efforts of the CNPC as well as the work of other organizations dedicated to bumble bee conservation.

Internationally, the Center helped establish and organize the IUCN/SSC Bumblebee Specialist Group (BBSG). Our first initiative is to organize a world-wide network of bumble bee researchers to undertake the task of examining all 250 species of bumble bees to establish their conservation status. This will help focus conservation efforts on the bumble bee species of greatest concern.

Goal

The Saint Louis Zoo's WildCare Institute Center for Native Pollinator Conservation (CNPC) was initiated to focus on the importance and diversity of native pollinators, especially native bees, for the maintenance and survival of wildlife, ecosystems and agriculture. The goals of the Center include:

  • Educating people about the importance of pollinators for the plants and wildlife around them and in their own lives
  • Developing and supporting local, national and international collaborations to develop pollinator conservation programs and research
  • Advancing our understanding and appreciation of native bees and other pollinators.

Bumble bees, next to honey bees, are probably the most recognizable bee and are the flagship species of the Center. Worldwide there are 250 species with around 50 species in North America. These large and attractive bees are integral to the survival of many plants, the wildlife that depends upon them and the pollination of many of our crops.

Conclusion

Bees are keystone species and vitally important to the proper functioning of ecosystems as well as to maintaining the beauty of nature around us. And yet we know little about the behavior, ecology, distribution, and conservation status of most bee species.

To help save the bees, it is necessary to think about how we interact with the environment around us. The Center for Native Pollinator Conservation is working through collaborations, research and education to expand our and the public's knowledge about the importance of bees and other pollinators, working to develop conservation actions that will help them, and ultimately, us.