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Rusty patched bumblebee now first bee to be listed as endangered in continental U.S.

  • The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) announced the endangered designation on Tuesday.
  • The final rule listing the rusty patched bumblebee as endangered appeared in the Federal Register the following day and will take effect on February 10.
  • According to FWS Midwest Regional Director Tom Melius, the bumblebee is among a group of pollinators, which also includes the monarch butterfly, whose populations have declined sharply across the country.

The rusty patched bumblebee became the first-ever bumblebee species to be protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act this week, and the first wild bee of any kind in the continental U.S. to be declared endangered.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) announced the endangered designation on Tuesday. The final rule listing the rusty patched bumblebee (Bombus affinis) as endangered appeared in the Federal Register the following day and will take effect on February 10.

According to FWS Midwest Regional Director Tom Melius, the bumblebee is among a group of pollinators, which also includes the monarch butterfly, whose populations have declined sharply across the country.

“Pollinators are small but mighty parts of the natural mechanism that sustains us and our world,” Melius said in a statement that accompanied the agency’s announcement of the endangered listing. “Without them, our forests, parks, meadows and shrublands, and the abundant, vibrant life they support, cannot survive, and our crops require laborious, costly pollination by hand.”

Rusty patched bumblebees are important pollinators of a variety of plants, from prairie wildflowers to economically important crops like apples, blueberries, cranberries, peppers, and tomatoes. Even plants capable of self-pollination benefit from being pollinated by bumblebees, producing more abundant and larger fruit. Bees and other insects provide an estimated $3-billion-worth of pollination services in the U.S. every year, the FWS said.

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

In September, FWS listed seven species of yellow-faced bees in Hawaii as endangered, but Bombus affinis is the first bumblebee species given protected status.

Once commonly found flitting from flower to flower across 28 U.S. states from Minnesota to Maine and south through the Appalachians as well as two Canadian provinces, the rusty patched bumblebee’s numbers have plummeted some 87 percent since the late 1990s, according to the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation. Today, only small and scattered populations remain in 13 U.S. states and one Canadian province.

The official designation as a protected species by FWS follows a five-year campaign by the Xerces Society, which first petitioned for the listing of rusty patched bumblebees as endangered in 2013. In 2014, the Xerces Society joined with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) in a suit against FWS for failing to act on the petition. The FWS first issued its decision to list the bee as endangered in September 2016.

The endangered listing means that FWS has determined the species is in danger of going extinct across all or portions of its range. Per the Xerces Society, scientific consensus holds that pathogens and pesticides are the two biggest threats to the existence of the rusty patched bumblebee, and their impacts are compounded by habitat loss driven mostly by conversion of land for agricultural use. Scientists have also pointed to a class of pesticides called neonicotinoids, which are widely used on cropland, lawns, gardens, and forests, as being linked to the decline in bees.

The rusty patched bumble bee was listed as endangered under Canada’s Species at Risk Act in 2010 and as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List in 2015.

A listing under the Endangered Species Act will require the Fish & Wildlife Service to prepare a recovery plan for the species. The FWS’ Melius said that there are steps the public can take right now to help pollinators like the rusty patched bumblebee, including planting native flower varieties that bloom from spring all the way through to fall; limiting or avoiding the use of pesticides; fostering natural landscapes; and leaving grass and garden plants uncut after summer to provide habitat for overwintering bees.

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

Bombus affinis. Photo by USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab.

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