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Key bee species found on Mount Hood

A small breakthrough with wide-ranging implications happened on Mount Hood this last summer.by: PHOTO BY MICHAEL DURHAM, COURTESY OF THE OREGON ZOOPHOTO BY MICHAEL DURHAM, COURTESY OF THE OREGON ZOO. - With the help of a laser-triggered shutter and a flash that fires at 1/50,000th of a second, Oregon Zoo photographer Michael Durham captured what is believed to be the first high-speed photo of the rare Western Bumblebee in flight.

Biologist Rich Hatfield spent most of July and all of August identifying bumble bee species in the Mount Hood National Forest, through a program sponsored by the Oregon Zoo and conducted by the Xerces Society, a nonprofit organization that protects invertebrate habitats.

In the process Hatfield discovered a rare species, thought to have vanished, near Timberline Lodge.

The Western Bumblebee is an inch-long, white-bottomed bee that had been one of the most common pollinators in the west. Around 15 years ago, they mysteriously disappeared west of the Cascades.

“The Western Bumblebee is a red flag,” Hatfield said. “Their disappearance is not a natural process. But the thing that gives me hope is that if their disappearance is caused by people, maybe we can do something to reduce or reverse it.”

Scientists attribute bumble bee declines to a variety of factors. Introduced pathogens are the leading hypothesis for Western Bumblebee decline. Pesticides were to blame for killing 50,000 bumblebees in Wilsonville last June. Rounding out the threats are habitat loss and climate change, and when all of these factors are combined, the implications reach far beyond food production.

Hatfield’s discovery suggests a return of the species, which means good things on an environmental level.

“The most significant thing to think about is that this is a symptom,” said Hatfield of the absence of the bees. “We don’t know very much about the bee population, but we do know that bees have incredible environmental impact. For example, one of every three bites of food we eat comes from plants pollinated by animals, and those animals are usually bees.”

Hatfield said bumblebees are understood as a keystone species in our environment, crucial to the ecological balance. The Western Bumblebee once ranged from the Pacific Crest all the way to the coast.

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