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'Extinct' Bumblebee Found Alive And Buzzing In Virginia

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The rusty patched bumblebee had been missing from the eastern United States for the past five years - until now. Combing through 35,000 bees collected from Virginia near the Shenandoah Valley and Appalachian Mountains, scientists found a single rusty patched bumblebee worker.

"In 20 years of studying bees, I have never seen a rusty patched," says T'ai Roulston, an entomologist at the University of Virginia who helped discover the bee, in a statement.

The rusty patched bumblebee, with the characteristic orange-red splotch on the back. (University of Virginia)

The past few years have been rough on the bee. Colony collapse disorder, for example, threatens commercial honey bee populations; possible culprits for the massive bee disappearance include parasites and overuse of pesticides, as well as stress from overcrowded bee yards.

Rusty patched bumblebees, though not used commercially, are key pollinators for wild plants and crops such as apples and onions. They've disappeared from about 87 percent of their historic range, making this discovery all the more rewarding.

"We thought this bumble bee was extinct," says Bill McShea, a scientist at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute who surveyed the bees. "Finding one bee, well this is the stuff conservationists live for."

Where there's a worker bee, there's a colony, Roulston says. The rusty patched bees will spend winter underground, and in the spring the researchers hope to uncover exactly where the rare bees are living.

(University of Virginia)

In May, the invertebrate conservation group the Xerces Society sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the rusty patched bumblebee, which is currently unprotected, under the Endangered Species Act.