A bum­ble­bee joins the en­dan­gered species list

This one stings: It used to be all over the place, but not any­more

The Dallas Morning News - - FRONT PAGE -

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.

Sharp drop

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.

Sarah Foltz Jor­dan/The Xerces So­ci­ety

Bum­ble­bees will pol­li­nate pretty much any­thing and can fly in lower tem­per­a­tures and lower light con­di­tions than many other in­sects.

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