Photographer's Crusade to Save a Bumble Bee Leads Him to Wisconsin

Apr 20, 2016

The rusty-patched bumble bee used to be abundant, including in Wisconsin. Nature photographer Clay Bolt became interested in the species' dwindling numbers, and set out to create a documentary about his quest to find the bee.

The South Carolinian ended up at UW-Madison's Arboretum.

Susan Carpenter and Clay Bolt at UW-Arboretum
Credit Susan Bence

Years before Bolt entered the picture, Arboretum outreach specialist Susan Carpenter never used to pay attention to rusty-patched, or any bumble bees for that matter. She was too busy tending the Arboretum's native plants.

Things changed in 2011.

“In the spring, I received a photograph from a person who had visited the summer before. He thought it was a rusty-patched but he was skeptical,” Carpenter says.

Experts confirmed its identity.

“After we found out we didn’t know anything about our bumble bees and that we may have this special one here, we began to look for them,” Carpenter says.

The Arboretum’s bumble bee conservation project was born. And, it brought Carpenter and Clay Bolt together.

Bolt had been searching far and wide for the rusty-patched and finally observed his first in Madison.

Photographer Clay Bolt
Credit Susan Bence

Bolt is a human encyclopedia of facts when it comes to the rusty-patched.. “Unlike a lot of bees, they can fly in very cool temperatures because they can regulate their body temperature, by unhinging their wings essentially and vibrating their flight muscles,” he says.

And, it’s also a short-tongued species, making the rusty-patched a perfect “nectar-robber.”  “Species like this bee balm have very long flower tubes and since they can’t reach the nectar with their tongue they just bite off the end of the flower to get to it, you’ve got to making a living somehow,” Bolt says.

But the rusty-patched is not faring well. The species originally blanketed the upper Midwest and eastern North America; now only two small islands appear to remain.

And decline is not reserved to the rusty-patched alone, Bolt says 1 out of 4 bumble bees native to North America are at risk of extinction. He wants people to know how special they are and his documentary, A Ghost In The Making, aims to make that point:

“Bumble bees are more effective pollinators than honey bees, especially when it comes to things like blueberries. They hang beneath the flower of the blueberry and use something called buzz pollination or sonication where they vibrate those flight muscles and the pollen falls down onto the bees…. people just don’t have any idea about in general, I didn’t, until recently and I’m amazed,” Bolt says.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering whether to protect the rusty-patched bumble bee under the Endangered Species Act.

In Wisconsin, the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection is about to issue its first Pollinator Protection Plan. It’s strictly advisory, but outlines best management for everything from lawns and gardens, to farms and roadsides.

Bolt hopes if more people know how amazing bumble bees are, more will feel compelled to dive into solutions.

Rusty-patched with UW-Madison Arboretum visitors center in background.
Credit Clay Bolt

Professor Claudio Gratton's research at UW-Madison involves bees. He's trying to figure out what insects - pollinators in particular - need to survive and thrive on our landscapes.