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West Sacramento News-Ledger

Fourth Annual Bumble Bee of the Year Contest Begins

Dec 28, 2023 11:40AM ● By Kathy Keatley Garvey, UC Davis

Davis resident Ria deGrassi, shown at the UC Davis Arboretum and Public Garden, won the 2023 Bumble Bee of the Year contest. She located the bumble bee in her yard on a ceanothus that she purchased from an Arboretum plant sale. Photo courtesy of UC Davis


DAVIS, CA (MPG) - Who will spot and photograph the first bumble bee of the year in the two-county area of Yolo and Solano?

The Bohart Museum of Entomology is sponsoring its fourth annual Robbin Thorp Memorial First-Bumble Bee-of-the-Year Contest, which begins at 12:01, Jan. 1, 2024. The first person to photograph a bumble bee in either Yolo or Solano and email it to the sponsor, the Bohart Museum, will receive a coffee cup designed with the endangered Franklin's bumble bee, the bee that Thorp monitored on the California-Oregon border for decades.

Contest coordinator Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart Museum, said the image must be taken in the wild and emailed to [email protected], with the time, date and place.

The contest memorializes Professor Thorp (1933-2019), a global authority on bees and a UC Davis distinguished emeritus professor of entomology, who died June 7, 2019, at age 85. A 30-year member of the UC Davis faculty, he retired in 1994 but continued working until several weeks before his death. Every year he looked forward to seeing the first bumble bee of the year in the area.

The 2023 winner was Ria deGrassi of Davis, who spotted and videoed a black-tailed bumble bee Bombus melanopygus, foraging on a ceanothus plant on Sunday afternoon, Jan. 8 in her backyard in Davis.

She recorded the video on her cell phone at 12:32 p.m. to win the third annual contest. See her YouTube video at

“I was doing clean-up in my backyard after Saturday night's rain and a 50-plus mile-per-hour windstorm,” said de Grassi, now an agricultural policy consultant. “The wind had subsided to a breeze by then. As I walked past my Ray Hartman ceanothus—which I purchased from a UC Davis Arboretum plant sale years ago when I did a garden makeover to be pollinator-friendly—I noticed some extra-long ceanothus branches that needed to be pruned, including some with super-early blooming flowers.”

“I fumbled to retrieve my cell phone from my pocket to record, just to get in on the fun,” said de Grassi. “These bumbles dart around a lot, they don't stay put for photo ops.”

De Grassi knew Thorp from her professional work with the California Farm Bureau Federation and from her friendship with bee scientists Timothy Lawrence and Susan Cobey, formerly of UC Davis.

DeGrassi, a former director of federal policy, livestock, animal health and welfare for the California Farm Bureau Federation, credits the storm, the UC Davis Arboretum and Public Garden and her working relationships with bee scientists, including Thorp, as having a hand in either her find and/or her interest in plants and pollinators.

The three previous winners (2022 was a tie) each photographed a bumble bee in the 100-acre UC Davis Arboretum. Coincidentally, de Grassi bought her prized ceanothus at an Arboretum plant sale.

Postdoctoral researcher Charlie Casey Nicholson of the Neal Williams lab and the Elina Lastro Niño lab, UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology, won the 2021 contest by photographing a B. melanopygus at 3:10 p.m., Jan. 14 in a manzanita patch in the Arboretum.

UC Davis doctoral candidate Maureen Page of the Neal Williams lab and horticulturist Ellen Zagory, retired director of public horticulture for the Arboretum, tied for first in the 2022 contest by each photographing a bumble bee foraging on manzanita (Arctostaphylos) in the Arboretum at 2:30 p.m., Saturday, Jan. 1.

Page, who now holds a doctorate in entomology, photographed a B. melanopygus, while Zagory captured an image of the yellow-faced bumble bee, Bombus vosnesenskii.

Thorp, a tireless advocate of pollinator species protection and conservation, co-authored two books in 2014, during his retirement:  Bumble Bees of North America: An Identification Guide (Princeton University,) and California Bees and Blooms: A Guide for Gardeners and Naturalists (Heyday). Every year he looked forward to finding or seeing the first bumble bee in the area.

Thorp co-taught The Bee Course from 2002 to 2019. An intensive nine-day workshop affiliated with the American Museum of Natural History and held annually at the Southwestern Research Station, Portal, Ariz., it draws participants from around the world, including conservation biologists, pollination ecologists, and other biologists who want to gain greater knowledge of the systematics and biology of bees.

For years, Thorp monitored Franklin's bumble bee, found only in a small range in Southern Oregon and Northern California, and now feared extinct. He last spotted it in 2006.

The bumble bee contest originated in 2012 with the “Bombus posse” of Thorp, Allan Jones, Gary Zamzow, Kim Chacon and Kathy Keatley Garvey, who engaged in a friendly contest to see who could find the first bumble bee of the year in the two-county area. The first bumble bee to emerge in the area is usually the black-tailed bumble bee. B. melanopygus, according to Thorp. Another early bumble bee is the yellow-faced bumble bee, B. vosnesenskii.