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A century of pollen foraging by the endangered rusty patched bumble bee (Bombus affinis): Inferences from molecular sequencing of museum specimens

November 11, 2020

In 2017 the rusty patched bumble bee (Bombus affinis) became the first bee listed under the Endangered Species Act in the continental United States due to population declines and an 87% reduction in the species’ distribution. Bombus affinis decline began in the 1990s, predating modern bee surveying initiatives, and obfuscating drivers of decline. While understood to be a highly generalist forager, little is known about the role that resource limitation or shifting floral community composition could have played in B. affinis decline. Determining which floral species support B. affinis could assist conservation efforts where B. affinis persists and identify floral species for restoration efforts. We constructed a historical foraging profile of B. affinis via DNA sequencing of pollen from museum specimens spanning seven states collected from 1913 to 2013. Molecular analysis revealed no temporal changes in the floral richness or composition of B. affinis pollen samples across our sampling period. Likewise, we found no temporal changes in the presence or proportion of native vs. introduced species in pollen samples, though we observed much greater use of introduced floral species than previously determined for B. affinis. Floral community composition was regionally dissimilar, inconsistent with patterns of B. affinis decline by state. Our results suggest B. affinis decline was unlikely to have been driven by spatial or temporal limitations of specific floral species. This work greatly expands the known forage of B. affinis and will provide managers with insight to aid the conservation of B. affinis.