Photographer and UVA researcher track bees in “A Ghost in the Making”

Conservation photographer Clay Bolt explores the decline of a rare bee species in his new short documentary, A Ghost in the Making: Searching for the Rusty-Patched Bumblebee. The Wild & Scenic Film Festival screens the film at Violet Crown on April 5. Photo by Neil Losin Conservation photographer Clay Bolt explores the decline of a rare bee species in his new short documentary, A Ghost in the Making: Searching for the Rusty-Patched Bumblebee. The Wild & Scenic Film Festival screens the film at Violet Crown on April 5. Photo by Neil Losin

Photographer Clay Bolt is drawn to species he calls the oddballs and little guys. Working internationally with organizations such as National Geographic and BBC Wildlife, Bolt is a natural history and conservation photographer.

“What sets me apart from a ‘nature photographer’ is that a lot of my work records life cycles and tells stories of the species that I focus on,” Bolt says. He seeks out images and videography that bring attention and protection to the creatures that most people overlook.

The rusty patched bumblebee is Bolt’s focus in A Ghost in the Making: Searching for the Rusty-Patched Bumblebee. He wrote, produced and released the short film last June, and it has been featured in environmental film festivals across the country and comes to Violet Crown Cinema on April 5 for the Wild & Scenic Film Festival.


What does a rusty patched bumblebee look like?

A worker has a black head, yellow midsection and a reddish rusty patch on its upper abdomen. Queens are larger and don’t have the reddish patch.

Rusty Patched Bumble Bee (Bombus affinis), female, worker, from Wisconsin. A species that has declined 87% in the past 15 years due primarily to an introduced Eurasian pathogen.
Courtesy claybolt.com

Through visuals such as slow-motion, magnified shots of various pollinators, and research from scientists across the country, Bolt’s documentary explores the rapid decline of the rusty patched bee—once common to the northern Midwest and eastern United States, including Virginia. Over the course of the past decade, the insect disappeared from nearly 90 percent of its historic range.

Bolt found T’ai Roulston, curator for the State Arboretum of Virginia and UVA environmental sciences associate professor, on a “listserv for bee people.” Roulston has studied interactions between insects, plants and pollinators like the rusty patched bumblebee for more than 20 years. He says the decline of this bee can largely be attributed to Nosema bombi, a disease brought to the United States from Europe.

Roulston explains that in the 1980s, two species of North American bees were shipped to Europe to study how to commercialize them for pollinating plants in greenhouses. After undergoing these studies and being exposed to various environments abroad, one species returned to greenhouses in the western United States, and the other returned to greenhouses in the eastern United States.

In the 1990s, the western bee species could no longer be used in greenhouse operations, due to high incidence of Nosema. The eastern species did not seem sensitive to the same disease, and remained in use for pollination.

“We have strong circumstantial evidence that Nosema increased in the wild bee population at the same time that commercial colonies were spreading,” Roulston says. “We’ve been doing surveys for Nosema in my lab in Virginia. We are seeing the pattern of high Nosema in species we consider to be declining,” which include the American bumblebee and its closest relative.

In 2014, Roulston and a team of researchers garnered buzz around the nation when they trapped a rusty patched bumblebee at Sky Meadows State Park in Delaplane, Virginia. It was the first time the bee had been seen in the eastern United States in five years. It was also the first time Roulston saw a rusty patched bumblebee in the wild, though it was postmortem.

“I was very intrigued by the fact that one individual bee suddenly popped up where it hadn’t been seen in a long time,” says Bolt. “It was an amazing little breadcrumb.”

Neil Losin, another producer of “A Ghost in the Making,” knew Roulston from spending time with him at Blandy Experimental Farm, a UVA research facility in the Shenandoah Valley, and home of the state arboretum. Ten years after Losin studied there, he, Bolt and the production crew came to Blandy to interview Roulston and film scenes.

“To go out into the field with T’ai and follow him and see his process, and how diligently he searches, was really amazing,” Bolt says. “It gives you hope that there are people out there who understand why—with all their heart—these species need to be protected.”

In January, the rusty patched became the first bumblebee in the continental United States to be listed under the Endangered Species Act, administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Shortly after, the Trump administration postponed new regulations from federal agencies for at least 60 days, including the ESA listing of the rusty patched.

Last week, in a decision Bolt calls a “miracle,” the listing became official.

“These are the moments that make all the hours of work and worry worthwhile,” Bolt says. “Now the real work begins.”

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