Bumble Bees Near the North Pole

Is that a fact?

It depends, of course, what you mean by “near”: England seems quite near for birds that fly from France across the Channel (la Manche) to reach the English coast, but for insects it sure is a long, long way. The distance from the southernmost edge of Greenland to its northernmost coastline is over 2,600 km, which is (when I heard that bumble bees live in North Greenland) ‘only’ about 800 km away from the North Pole, corresponding to the distance between San Francisco – San Diego or Le Havre in the north and Marseille in the south of France). I was pretty amazed. How can these insects survive there?

It was at the South Korean Ecology Conference that I saw a poster that a scientist by the name of Dr Won Young Lee had put up to report on his research in Greenland as well as in Antarctica. I was curious to meet that person, as there simply aren’t many researchers who have been active in both Arctic and Antarctic environments. When I explained to him where in Greenland I had been and that I had also visited Antarctica nine times, he told me about his research and then happened to mention how surprised he was when in North Greenland at a latitude of nearly 83° N, he had seen bumble bees. I had come across two species of bumble bee (Bombus polaris and B. hyperboreus) in southern Greenland, but had not been aware of the fact that these cold-hardy insects would be distributed to the furthest north of the island. It hadn’t been an interest of my Polar research till then (despite an electrophysiological study of mine in 1981 of the functional properties of the eye of the North Finnish species B.hortorum). 

But now I wanted to know more and requested to join the next expedition to North Greenland (which, however, did not happen as it ‘fell victim’ to the Corona pandemic) to catch some of these bees. Luckily, though, Dr Lee had preserved a Bombus polaris queen bee from North Greenland and with the help of my Iranian colleague Dr Saeed M. Namin (a skillful molecular entomologist) and the support of our Department’s Head (Prof Chuleui Jung), we embarked on a study to investigate the phylogenetic relationships between all known “High Arctic” bumble bee species and to speculate how B. polaris  got to North Greenland and how global warming could possibly affect its distribution and survival there.

We concluded that the female specimen we analysed was most closely related to Canadian populations of B. polaris. Geographic proximity, occurrence of B. polaris on Ellesmere Island 500 km to the west and wind direction were thought likely factors that aided B. polaris to establish itself in North Greenland. A moderately high level of genetic diversity of B. polaris in Greenland was determined reflecting the successful adaptation of the species. However, bumble bees need food and shelter and only the queen overwinters. But where and how in North Greenland’s permafrost-hard soil is there sufficient shelter? And how about pollen and nectar for food? In the broader context of entomological life in the high Arctic, our results on B. polaris allow us to conclude that the survival of pollinating species in the high Arctic under the changing climate scenario depends not only on the weather but also on an individual’s opportunity to continue to locate suitable food sources, which in North Greenland are provided by flowers of the abundant Pedicularis spp., Salix arctica and Ericaceae of the region. Other plants with a northern distribution like Stylophorum sp. and crowberries can be considered pollen and nectar providers, respectively, and are likely to be also visited by B. polaris. Will climate change affect them?

According to one of the foremost Arctic bumble bee researchers (Dr Grigory Potapov), some High Arctic species used to occur much more widely in the past. Will it help us predict the fate of B.polaris? More research may be needed and I’d love to be part of it.
My next destination? I hope it’s North Greenland!

© Dr V.B. Meyer-Rochow and http://www.bioforthebiobuff.wordpress.com, 2021. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to V.B Meyer-Rochow and http://www.bioforthebiobuff.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.