For the first time in American history, a bumble bee species has been placed on the endangered species list. It probably won’t be the last.
The rusty patched bumble bee 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 bumble bee’s habitat and habitat creation. It also raises awareness about the plight of the bumble bee 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.” By the early 2000s, the rusty patched bee was decidedly less visible even 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.
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 sinc, the number of colonies has climbed only slightly, by about 100,000.
One state, Maryland, shows how eerie and perilous the decline has been for professional beekeepers. In 2015, the state lost more than 60 percent of its hives, each containing up to 20,000 honeybees. Beekeeper Steve McDaniel, owner of McDaniel Honey Farms, lost half of his hives in Manchester, Md., and all of them where he kept bees in downtown Baltimore. Hives with up to 20,000 bees cost about $1,200.
Honeybees are agriculture’s go-to pollinator for many of the foods Americans eat, but bumble bees are no slouches. As a group, they “are some of the most significant pollinators,” Fish and Wildlife says in a fact sheet on its Web site. “Although bumble bees show a preference for certain native flowers, they are generally not picky about where they get their nectar and pollen — almost any source flower will do.
“Bumble bees can fly in cooler temperatures and lower light levels than many other bees, which makes them excellent crop pollinators. They also perform a behavior called ‘buzz pollination,’ in which the bee grabs the pollen producing structure of the flower in her jaws and vibrates her wing muscles, dislodging pollen from the flower,” Fish and Wildlife said. Tomatoes, peppers and cranberries are among the crops that benefit.