Bumblebees, “Ghosts in the Making”

It’s unusual for the staff and volunteers of the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport, NC to be as highly concerned about a wild creature we don’t rehabilitate as we are, but this living being . . . this insect . . . rules the world! That is not an exaggeration. The Bumblebee, especially the Rusty Patched Bumblebee which was once a common sight throughout the entire continental United States, is in serious trouble. Now it can only be found in small, scattered groups in 13 states. The bee’s population has plummeted by 87 percent since the 1990’s, and as of 9 November 2018 and for the first time in history, the RP Bumble Bee is officially listed as an endangered species on the brink of extinction. It is a ghost in the making. Yes, it is only one listed bee species, but it is a significant start to stronger action that needs to be taken to recover our bees! We are finally acknowledging in a formal and proactive way that if we lose our bumble bees, there will be no plants or parks, no forests or shrublands, no meadows and no vibrant life the bees support such as wildlife, domestic animals and the human animal. All these life forms simply cannot survive without bees. Bees have now joined the Grizzly Bear and the Northern Spotted Owl as heading for extinction if we don’t do something quick! 347 species of bees have drastically diminished over decades due to habitat loss, use of pesticides, mechanization of agriculture, disease, parasites and climate change, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service. This tiny creature, the bumblebee, known for growing our world is now protected, and we all need to do our part to help save them. Bees certainly don’t get the respect they deserve for all they do. Most people don’t like bugs of any kind and see the bee as a menace to their immediate environment, so they end up swatting it and possibly killing it, not realizing the devastating effects the loss of that bee will create. And how about the large number exterminated at one time when bees have taken up residence in an area or pocket deemed an inconvenience to a human, such as between the walls of a shed or under a porch, and they are all sprayed dead? Bumblebees do not damage wood or other structural components. If a bumblebee nest is discovered on your property, its best and safer to just leave it alone unless there is a good chance your activities will take place near the nest. If that’s the case, calling bee experts to orchestrate a safe conservational move might be the way to go. Foraging bumblebees will almost never divert from their tasks to intentionally sting someone or their pets. A few other reasons to accommodate a bumblebee nest is of course, their huge value as pollinators, the small size of their nest and their short life span when compared to other stinging insects such as yellow jackets and hornets. Although bumblebees are capable of stinging, they are quite gentle, docile and not as aggressive or likely to sting as wasps such as those hornets and yellowjackets. The male bumblebee cannot sting, and females only do so when they feel threatened. Also, in their defense, bumblebees make up for that unique and unappreciated behavior of stinging by being among the most important pollinators of crops such as blueberries, cranberries and clover and almost the only insect pollinators of tomatoes. They basically pollinate everything, which emphasizes what a food security issue the loss of bees presents! According to the U.S. FWS, “the economic value of pollination services provided by native insects (mostly bees) is estimated at $3 billion per year in the United States.” Bees are tiny and usually go unnoticed unless they buzz by you or in your face, but keep in mind when you deem them an annoyance that these pollinators are a huge part of the natural mechanism that sustains us and our world. Without them, food will not grow. Bumblebees are large, fuzzy insects with short stubby wings that beat 130 times or more per second in a sweeping motion rather than up and down. They seem to defy aerodynamics when you consider their tiny wings versus their rotund body. How they manage to stay in the air is a mystery to many bumblebee fans. Their extremely fast metabolism requires them to eat nectar or pollen constantly when they are on the move. It is said that “a bumblebee with a full stomach is only 40 minutes away from starvation.” Bumblebees are some of the most social creatures in the animal kingdom. A group of bumblebees is called a colony, and colonies can contain between 50 and 500 individual bees. Bumblebees are larger than honeybees but don’t produce much honey, because their role and mission is that of a remarkable pollinator. Other animals are pollinators as well to include birds, bats and butterflies, but there’s no question that bees are the most important, significant and vital pollinators in our ecosystems around the world. Bees are dying, but there are ways for everyone to help stop the bees’ decline. Recommendations are to plant native and bee-friendly flowers, limit or avoid pesticides, foster natural landscapes, leave grass and garden plants uncut after summer to provide habitat for overwintering bees, strategically place old logs on not frequented areas of your property, plant new habitats for the bees to thrive in, provide supplemental nectar (30% sugar & 70% water in bottle caps in and around flower beds) and even build nesting boxes for bees. As we enjoy the aesthetic beauty all around us; the greenery, the flowers, the trees, wildlife, please give credit where credit is due, to the bumblebee, which is also beautiful in its fuzzy, buzzy way! Our community goal should be to bring the bumble bees’ numbers back to a healthy level. If you haven’t yet, let’s get ready and start this process now. There are things we can do to prevent the decline of our precious bees, and so we should. Please join us in the efforts to save these fat, fuzzy fliers. It just might be the best Christmas present we will ever give ourselves and those we love! Bee Merry!

best always & HAPPY 2019!

Linda Bergman-Althouse

author of “Save Them All”

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“Run, Rail, Run!”

It’s hard to even notice one is there or anywhere because they blend so well into the environment and their surroundings. A Virginia Rail becomes one with the landscape. For a good Samaritan to recognize that this thin, wisp of a marsh bird is in trouble is even more remarkable, but that is why a rescuer delivered a Virginia Rail to the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport. He found it sitting on the roadway. That definitely means trouble and because it was thinner than the thin it should be, we have two theories; either it was weak from not eating properly, ran low on flight strength and just landed in the road or it was passing over the road and was grazed and stunned by a car. During a thorough examination, no injuries were found so it was rest and full meal deals in the treatment plan to ensure his strength returned. There are five species of rails found in North America, but the species we see most often in Eastern North Carolina is the Virginia Rail. The other types of rails include the Yellow Rail, Clapper Rail, Black Rail (the smallest) and the King Rail, which is the largest. Rails are most often heard and hardly ever seen. Virginia Rails are skinny! Although 8 to 10 inches long with a rounded wingspan of 12 to 15 inches, they weigh only 2.3 to 3.4 ounces. The Virginia Rail is a chickenlike marsh bird with a long, heavy bill and a short, upturned tail with white undertail feathers. Head on, the Virginia Rail looks very thin, but from the side they take on a fuller bodied look. Most biologists call that a laterally compressed body. They are mostly dull grays and reddish-browns in color and barred in irregular patterns. They demonstrate a jerky gait as they walk through their common habitat, the wetlands, and that slender build makes it easy to run through reeds and marsh grasses. These extremely reclusive and secretive birds prefer dense marsh, which makes access to seeing them very difficult. The possibility of seeing young rails is more prevalent because they move about in search of food while being raised and taught to hunt by their parents. Rails become active in the evening and feed into the dark of night, and even when they migrate, they use the cover of darkness. A Virginia Rail is a marsh bird that uses its environment to the fullest. These skulking birds use the tall grasses and cattails as cover in their habitat. They can move about totally unnoticed most of the time. Their long toes give them the ability to walk or run, if necessary, on top of plant life on the surface of the water. Rails do not require deep waters, only enough to swim on the surface and reach into the water in search of its food. Rails belong in the same family as Coots and Gallinules, but they are not as ostentatious. While their extroverted family members swim in open water and hang out conspicuously on shore, Virginia Rails will be hiding among reeds at the water’s edge and only at night will their calls be heard. Virginia Rails are particularly vocal in the spring. The birds sound off with a repeated “tick-it” in the hours of dawn and dusk, and this vocalization is thought to be made only by males. Females and males also sing a “kicker” call that has a stuttering quality to it. Their diet consists mostly of insects, crayfish, snails and some seeds. Virginia Rails feed on a wide variety of aquatic insects and their larvae, especially beetles, flies and dragonflies. They also eat crayfish, earthworms, snails, slugs and a few small fish. They forage by probing in the mud or shallow water, picking items up from the ground or stalking small prey and capturing them with a swift thrust of their bill. During breeding season, the male Virginia Rail will court a female by running back and forth with his wings raised. Both will make bowing motions to each other, the male will bring food and feed the female which usually clinches the deal! Males and females perform duets of pig-like grunts to defend their territories and to communicate with each other throughout the breeding season. They both build a platform nest made of cattails, reeds and grasses in a dry area of the marsh, possibly over shallow water. A top of the line nest will have living plants that form a canopy of protection over it. Momma Rail will lay 5 – 13 pale buff eggs with brown or gray spots that will be incubated by both parents for 18 – 25 days. The hatchlings will leave the nest within days, but the parents will continue to brood and feed the chicks until they are 3 weeks old. The youngsters will be flying at 25 days. The parents will generally leave the breeding territory at that point, but the young will remain. Virginia Rails, although reclusive, are colonial birds, so there may be quite a few residing together in one area, and a group of Virginia Rails collectively is known as a “Reel” of rails. They are often found sharing territory with the Sora Rail who really doesn’t compete much for the VR’s food, because the shorter-billed Sora eats more seeds than the VR’s preference of insects. Although the Virginia Rail’s presence has declined in brackish and marsh areas due to the loss of habitat, they are still widespread and common, so you won’t find them on an endangered list. As common as these “thin as a rail” water birds are, we still don’t know a lot about their behaviors because they spend their time in hiding and are very fast runners (well, at least, we know that!). They would rather try to escape danger by outrunning predators such as snakes, rodents, crows, raptors, coyotes and cats rather than be quick to fly. If flying is the only option, it will happen in bursts of short distance flights, land and then, take off again. Virginia Rails appear to be weak flyers, however, they are capably known to migrate long distances from our northern states to our southern states every year, so, this unique avoidance behavior just seems to be “their thing.” Although odd for a flighted animal to choose running over flying when in danger, it is what it is. Run, Virginia Rail, Run!

best always & Merry Christmas,

Linda Bergman-Althouse

author of “Save Them All”