A bumblebee joins the endangered species list
This one stings: It used to be all over the place, but not anymore
For the first time in American history, a bumblebee species has been placed on the endangered species list. It probably won’t be the last.
The rusty patched bumblebee was so prevalent 20 years ago that pedestrians in Midwest cities fought to shoo them away. Now, even trained scientists and experienced bee watchers find it difficult to lay eyes on them.
“I’ve never seen one, and I live here pretty close to where there have been populations documented,” said Tamara Smith, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist stationed in Minneapolis.
Fearing that the striped black and yellow pollinator
with a long black tail could be lost forever, Fish and Wildlife designated the animal as endangered Tuesday.
The designation triggers protections such as regulations against knowingly destroying the bumblebee’s habitat and habitat creation. It also raises awareness about the plight of the bumblebee and requires a detailed, long term recovery plan to restore its population.
Why was the rusty patched bee selected for the list and not others? The answer, Smith said, is its former abundance and astonishing plummet.
Around 1995, “researchers were out looking for it in places where it was everywhere, and assumed it would be there,” she said. “All the people interested in bees started talking to each other, and they said we haven’t seen this bee for a while.”
Soon the rusty patched bee was nowhere to be found in places such as Madison, Wis., and Minneapolis, cities that were once buzzing with them.
The list of suspected causes for the disappearance, according to the agency, reads like an environmental most-wanted list: farm pesticides, household herbicides, human development over bee habitat, disease and climate change.
Although rusty patched bumble bees are the first to be considered endangered, and the first bee species on the U.S. mainland to get the designations (the yellow faced bee in Hawaii became the first overall in October last year), they are likely to be joined by others.
“This bee is kind of like the canary in the coal mine,” Smith said, an indicator that many pollinator species — bees and butterflies — are in deep trouble.
‘Small but mighty’
The role of these bees and other pollen-carrying insects is important, Tom Melius, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Midwest regional director, said in a statement.
“Pollinators are small but mighty parts of the natural mechanism that sustains us and our world,” he said. “Without them, our forests, parks, meadows and shrub lands, and the abundant, vibrant life they support, cannot survive, and our crops require laborious, costly pollination by hand."
Around the world, the populations of bees, butterflies and other insects that promote plant growth are crashing, a threat not only to biodiversity but also to the global food supply.
A study last year from a group associated with the United Nations warned that an increasing number of species that aid the growth of hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of food each year face extinction.
There were nearly 3.5 million honeybee colonies in 1989, according to the Agriculture Department. That number fell by a million colonies when colony collapse disorder was first documented in 2006. In the 10 years since, the number of colonies has climbed only slightly, by about 100,000.
“Obviously, it’s sad that anything has to get on the endangered list, but this really provides a great opportunity,” said Dennis van Engels dorp of the University of Maryland, a bee expert who applauded the government’s decision. “When you’re talking about saving the bumblebees, what you’re really talking about is saving the community.”
The kinds of measures that could protect the rustypatched bumblebee could help many other pollinators, as well, by restoring habitats and food sources and restricting the use of pesticides — especially nicotine-based insecticides that have been linked to the decline in bee species and particularly to the plight of the rustypatched bumblebee.
Bumblebees are particularly effective pollinators because, though they seem to prefer native flowers, they will pollinate pretty much anything and can fly in lower temperatures and lower light conditions than many other insects.
They also use the technique of “buzz pollination,” in which they grab the pollen-producing part of the flower in their jaws and vibrate their wings, shaking the pollen loose, a process that seems to benefit plants like tomatoes, peppers and cranberries, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.
Federal protection for the rusty-patched bumblebee has been a priority for the Xerces Society, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the health of pollinators, said Sarina Jepsen, who heads the group’s endangered species program.
“We are very pleased to see one of North America’s most endangered species receive the protection it needs,” she said.
Bumblebees will pollinate pretty much anything and can fly in lower temperatures and lower light conditions than many other insects.