Unique bumblebee discovered on Wrangel Island | Polarjournal
When a bumblebee was found in 1902 on Novaya Zemlya in the middle of the Arctic Ocean, entomologists were surprised. It wasn’t a sensation, though. The insect could have been brought to the islands by the wind from the mainland. At that time, there was no reliable identification.

The glacier bumblebee was first discovered on Novaya Zemlya in 1902. Conclusive DNA evidence in 2017 showed that the glacial bumblebee – or Bombus glacialis – is a distinct species. Scientists believe that the bee, endemic to the remote island, survived the ice age here. Scientists from Arkhangelsk have now also discovered a population of glacier bumblebees on Wrangel Island.

The bumblebees discovered on Wrangel Island show only slight modification compared to the Novaya Zemlya bumblebees. (Photo: Federal Center for Integerated Arctic Research, Russian Academy of Sciences)

Previously, this bumblebee subspecies was believed to be endemic only to the Novaya Zemlya archipelago. Now a similar find was made on the territory of the Wrangel Island Reserve, located 3,600 km from Novaya Zemlya, by the head of the entomology department of the Moscow Zoo, Mikhail Berezin.

“Based on the results of genetic analysis, during which several genes were decoded, we concluded that the Wrangel’s bumblebee is a separate population of “Bombus glacialis”,” said Mikhail Berezin.

According to scientist Grigory Potapov, the population found differs in color from the one on the Novaya Zemlya archipelago. He noted that in recently discovered Wrangel’s glacier bumblebees, some parts of the abdomen and chest are lighter in color. Their appearance also differs somewhat from the Novaya Zemlya bumblebee. The two populations may have separated during the warm interglacial period about 270,000 years ago. Potapov and his colleagues have now published their results in the journal Polar Biology.

The flora on Wrangel Island is very rich in species compared to other Arctic areas. With 417 plant species, twice as many species live here as on comparable areas and more than on any other Arctic island. (Photos: Heiner Kubny)

According to researchers, Bombus glacialis is quite unique. It is genetically distinct from all mainland species. They are believed to have drifted over most of the Arctic continental shelf, which was not covered by water, in ancient geological epochs.

Researchers believe that Wrangel Island was part of Beringia, an ancient natural “bridge” between Asia and North America used by various animals that migrated back and forth. Since the island was hardly covered by glaciers, there are many endemic species that are typical only for certain areas.

The number of bumblebees on Wrangel Island is estimated to be higher than on Novaya Zemlya. The latter archipelago is characterized by more severe natural conditions. On Novaya Zemlya, the glacier bumblebee also has a smaller number of plants to collect nectar and pollen, while on Wrangel Island the flora is much richer.

The first specimens of the bumblebee were registered on Novaya Zemlya in 1902. The newly discovered population of the bumblebee was found on Wrangel Island, 3,600 kilometres away. (Graphic: Heiner Kubny)

The bumblebees of Wrangel Island build their nests in the burrows of lemmings, which have also lived in the Arctic since time immemorial. Natural enemies of bumblebees are arctic foxes and skuas. Scientists also noted a rich parasitic fauna on Wrangel Island. Bumblebees and their nests are also heavily infested with parasites, including ticks and nematodes.

Heiner Kubny, PolarJournal

Link to the study: Potapov, G.S., Berezin, M.V., Kolosova, Y.S. et al. The last refugia for a polar relict pollinator: isolates of Bombus glacialis on Novaya Zemlya and Wrangel Island indicate its broader former range in the Pleistocene. Polar Biol 44, 1691-1709 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00300-021-02912-6

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