Bumblebees of the World Blog Series… #9 Bombus gerstaeckeri

by Denis Michez, Researcher at Université de Mons, Belgium.

September’s blog features a vulnerable European bumblebee species, Bombus gerstaeckeri, and comes from Denis Michez, a researcher at Université de Mons, Belgium, who studies global bee diversity and conservation.

Latin nameBombus gerstaeckeri

Bombus gerstaeckeri male. Photo credit Denis Michez

Common name/s: None

Colour pattern: Males and females ginger haired thorax that extends on to the top of the abdomen, the rest of which is black with a blonde/white tail (similar to Tree bumblebees, Bombus hypnorum)

Favoured flowers: Aconitums (eg. Monkshoods)

Global region: Palaearctic

Geographic distribution: Europe: Andorra, Austria, France, Germany, Italy, Romania, Russia, Slovenia, Spain, Switzerland, Ukraine

Conservation status: Vulnerable (at European level)

Of all the bumblebees described globally, only three species are described as oligolectic (specialists), which means they have a strong preference for a particular food source. Two species: Bombus consobrinus and B. gerstaeckeri are specialists on plants from the genus Aconitum (Ranunculaceae), which includes Monkshoods, and also B. brodmannicus delmasi, one of the two subspecies belonging to the species B. brodmannicus, shows some degree of oligolectism on the genus Cerinthe (Boraginaceae).

Given their morphological similarity and their food specialisation on Aconitum, it has long been thought that B. consobrinus and B. gerstaeckeri should be two sister species or even two subspecies of the same species. However, the publication of the bumblebee evolutionary history demonstrated that these two species are not sisters. Fascinatingly, the evolutionary event of food specialization on Aconitum plants therefore took place twice, independently. The actual sister species of B. consobrinus and B. gerstaeckeri are B. koreanus  and B. supremus, respectively, two species with Asian distributions, which do not show the same specialisation.

Bombus gerstaeckeri mouth parts. Photo credit: Denis Michez

Specialisation on plants with such deep flowers requires an extremely long proboscis (tongue) as can be seen in the amazing image above.

Bombus gerstaeckeri distribution. Credit: Denis Michez

Whereas B. consobrinus has a completely palearctic distribution from Norway to Japan, B. gerstaeckeri has a West-Palearctic distribution (Fig. 2) and mainly occurs in fragmented populations across mountainous regions. It is found in the Pyrenees, the Alps, the Carpathians and it is also present in the Caucasus. In the Ukrainian Pyrenees and Carpathians, populations are isolated and made up of a small number of individuals. Four observations in the Romanian Carpathians have also been recorded. When populations exist in isolation like this (Fig. 2), we sometimes find they become genetically distinct from each other over time, but in this case separate populations have remained broadly similar. They were however, more distinct than another more common species, the Garden bumblebee (B. hortorum), which is found across the same areas.

Monkshood (Aconitum napellus). Photo credit Denis Michez

In the Alps and the Pyrenees, B. gerstaeckeri mainly visits the following Aconitum species: Anthora (A. anthora), Monkshood (A. napellus) and Wolf's bane (A. lycoctonum). Several other food plants are occasionally visited by this species, such as Epilobium angustifolium or Delphinium dubium, probably for the nectar. It is not entirely clear why this specialisation has taken place, however it seems as though B. gerstaeckeri  is reliant on pollen from Aconitum plants for larval development, which could be down to the nutritional content of the pollen, but there is also the possibility that toxins within the plants affect this species’ pollen foraging choice.

Links to further information:

IUCN Redlist page

Natural History Museum species account

Natural History Museum Bombus - Bumblebees of the world homepage

IUCN Bumblebee Specialist Group



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