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Sunday, June 23, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Near-Extinct Bumblebee Protected

The once common rusty patched bumble bee is the first bumble bee in the United States to be federally protected.

(CN) - The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has granted Endangered Species Act protection to the rusty patched bumblebee, because it is “on the brink of extinction.” The bee was proposed for endangered species status just four months ago in September 2016. The extremely compressed timeframe, usually one year from listing proposal to final listing, is an indicator of the urgent need to save this important pollinator.

“Our top priority is to act quickly to prevent extinction of the rusty patched bumblebee. Listing the bee as endangered will help us mobilize partners and focus resources on finding ways right now to stop the decline,” Service Midwest Regional Director Tom Melius said.

The listing is in response to a 2013 petition from the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, and a following lawsuit filed by the group when the agency did not timely respond to the petition. The Natural Resources Defense Council partnered with the Xerces Society to encourage the agency to act on the petition.

“We are very pleased to see one of North America’s most endangered species receive the protection it needs,” Sarina Jepsen, Xerces Society director of endangered species, said. “Now that the Fish and Wildlife Service has listed the rusty patched bumblebee as endangered, it stands a chance of surviving the many threats it faces—from the use of neonicotinoid pesticides to diseases.”

Rusty patch populations, once common in 28 states and two Canadian provinces, have plummeted 87 percent, leaving “small, scattered populations in 13 states and one province,” the agency said. “Some populations are so small that it is unclear whether they still exist.”

This bee is an important pollinator of both prairie wildflowers and food crops such as tomatoes, peppers, cranberries, blueberries, apples, and alfalfa, among others. Imagine our nation’s wildlands devoid of flowers, and consider the astronomical cost of hand-pollination of our crops. The rusty patched bumblebee is only one of many pollinator species that is in steep decline. “Bumblebees are especially good pollinators; even plants that can self-pollinate produce more and bigger fruit when pollinated by bumblebees,” the agency noted.

“Native pollinators in the U.S. provide essential pollination services to agriculture which are valued at more than $9 billion annually,” Eric Lee-Mäder, Xerces Society pollinator program co-director, said. “We have already seen incredible leadership from the agricultural community in restoring and protecting hundreds of thousands of acres of habitat for the rusty patched bumblebee and other native pollinators. Providing a landscape that sustains all of our native bees will require continued investment by public agencies, as well as efforts from private residents in both urban and rural areas.”

The bees’ decline is due to pesticide use that directly or indirectly kills the bees, loss of habitat, parasites, climate change and small population size. Many of these threats act in combination. For instance, climate change can affect bloom times and the amount of flowers available for forage, which the bees need from early spring into the fall. Flooding can reduce nesting options, and over-heating due to rising temperatures further stresses the bees making them more susceptible to parasites. Small populations are more vulnerable to any one threat, or combination of threats, and in itself causes decreased viability due to genetic inbreeding, which leads to fewer fertile males and females.

“Rusty patched bumblebee colonies rely on survival of their queen bee, the only member of the colony that survives the winter. In spring, a solitary queen emerges from hibernation, finds a suitable nest site and lays eggs fertilized the previous fall,” according to the agency. These bees nest in the ground, and may also be susceptible to accumulated pesticides in the soil.

The agency encourages the public to “plant native flowers, even in small plots in urban areas, using a variety that will bloom from spring through fall. Limit or avoid use of pesticides if possible, and always follow label instructions carefully. Foster natural landscapes and leave grass and garden plants uncut after summer to provide habitat for overwintering bees.”

The Xerces Society offers citizen scientists the opportunity to participate in its online Bumble Bee Watch, a developing database of sightings and observations for bumblebee species in the U.S. and Canada.

“Today’s Endangered Species listing is the best—and probably last—hope for the recovery of the rusty patched bumblebee. Bumblebees are dying off, vanishing from our farms, gardens, and parks, where they were once found in great numbers,” Rebecca Riley, Senior Attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said.

The final listing is effective Feb. 10.

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