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Bombus flavifrons on a columbine in Grand Teton National Park.

Despite what the name suggests, bumblebees are anything but clumsy.

They’re nature’s workhorses, the extreme athletes of the insect world. That big, furry-looking bee in your garden or grass can actually survive at elevations higher than Mount Everest.

“They don’t, because there aren’t any flowers up there, but if you put them in a box and make the conditions like the top of Everest, they can survive,” said Michael Dillon, a professor and bumblebee researcher at the University of Wyoming.

They’ve been found pollinating tiny mountain flowers at elevations higher than 18,000 feet.

Bumblebees are also critical to growing key crops around the world including tomatoes and peppers.

Some plants require what is called buzz pollination or sonication, which is when bees vibrate their flight muscles so fast it forces pollen out of the flower. Honey bees don’t buzz pollinate, which means bumblebees are in high demand, he said.

Unfortunately, bumblebee numbers are dwindling. Some species are essentially gone, while others appear to be fine, Dillon said.

Causes for declines range from habitat loss including converting prairie and wildflowers to farms with pesticides, and climate change. Bumblebees need colder weather to survive, which makes a warming planet particularly dangerous.

But for now, Wyomingites can find the powerful pollinator in garden tomato plants in town and in lupine or asters near mountaintops.

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Follow Assistant Content Director Christine Peterson on Twitter @PetersonOutside.




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