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OLYMPIA, WA (Reuters) - A North American bumblebee species that all but vanished from about half of its natural range has re-emerged in Washington state, delighting scientists who voiced optimism the insect might eventually make a recovery in the Pacific Northwest.

Entomologists and bee enthusiasts in recent weeks have photographed several specimens of the long-absent western bumblebee - known to scientists as Bombus occidentalis - buzzing among flower blossoms in a suburban park north of Seattle.

"It's a pretty big deal," said Rich Hatfield, a biologist for the Oregon-based Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, which documents and reports such findings.

"It gives us hope that we can do some conservation work, and perhaps the species has a chance at repopulating its range," he told Reuters this week.

The multiple sightings, including observations of several queens, are evidence of western bumblebee colonies in the area, although it hardly proves the species has returned in force and or that it will thrive in the region, Hatfield said.

Bombus occidentalis is one of four wild North American bumblebee species whose populations began to plummet two decades ago, while honeybees - commercially bred for the most part - have undergone less precipitous declines, Hatfield said.

Scientists have cited a number of likely factors for bumblebee declines, including parasites, pesticides and habitat fragmentation.

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