The bees are dying.
For the first time in the United States, bees have been placed on the endangered-species list. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Friday determined that seven species of yellow-faced bees, all native to Hawaii, should be protected under the Endangered Species Act.
All seven species belong to the Hylaeus genus of bees. Together, the wasp-looking bees are more commonly known as "yellow-faced" or "masked" for their yellow-to-white facial markings.
These species are responsible for pollinating some of Hawaii's indigenous plant species, many of which are threatened themselves.
Karl Magnacca, a Hawaii-based entomologist, told the Associated Press that efforts to have the bees federally protected took nearly a decade.
"It's good to see it finally come to fruition," he told the AP, adding that yell0w-faced bees tend to favor the more dominant trees and shrubs in Hawaii, which helps "maintain the structure of the whole forest."
Magnacca did much of the initial research on the bees in support of the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, a nonprofit that aims to protect pollinators and other invertebrates. (The group says it takes its name from the Xerces blue butterfly, "the first butterfly known to go extinct in North America as a result of human activities.")
For years, the Oregon-based group had pushed for yellow-faced bees to be recognized and protected. In 2009, the Xerces Society first submitted petitions to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the group celebrated news of the federal agency's ruling Friday — even as representatives noted there could have been more done to protect the insects.
The endangered-species designation "is excellent news for these bees, but there is much work that needs to be done to ensure that Hawaii’s bees thrive," Xerces Society spokesman Matthew Shepherd wrote in a statement on the group's website. Yellow-faced bees "are often found in small patches of habitat hemmed in by agricultural land or developments. Unfortunately, the [Fish and Wildlife Service] has not designated any 'critical habitat,' areas of land of particular importance for the endangered bees."
According to the federal agency, yellow-faced bees have been threatened by nonnative bees and other invasive animal species, as well as by human development. Although there is no evidence yet, researchers noted, too, that yellow-faced bees could be compromised by diseases transmitted by nonnative insects.
"The small number of remaining [yellow-faced bee] populations limits this species’ ability to adapt to environmental changes," the agency wrote in its Sept. 30 final ruling. "The effects of climate change are likely to further exacerbate these threats."
Magnacca told the AP that there are a lot more rare insects that deserve protection. "It may not necessarily be appropriate to list them as endangered, but we have this huge diversity that we need to work on and protect here in Hawaii," he said. "There's a huge amount of work that needs to be done."
The designation is considered a victory for conservationists and echoes a broader effort, made in recent years, to recognize the contributions and importance of bees. That effort may be paying off: In May 2015, the White House released its National Strategy to Promote the Health of Honeybees and Other Pollinators in a bid to protect such critters across the country.
“I have to say that it is mighty darn lovely having the White House acknowledge the indigenous, unpaid and invisible workforce that somehow has managed to sustain all terrestrial life without health-care subsidies, or a single COLA, for that past 250 million years,” Sam Droege, a U.S. Geological Survey wildlife biologist and one of the country’s foremost experts on native bee identification, told The Washington Post in May 2015.
Much of the publicity so far has been focused on honeybees because their work in pollinating crops makes them economically valuable to humans. But in a research paper published in the journal Nature Communications last year, scientists contended that wild bees may deserve just as much attention, even if fewer wild species are responsible for crop pollination.
“There’s more than just economic reasons to protect nature and the species in it,” Taylor Ricketts, a co-author of the paper and director of the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics at the University of Vermont, told The Post last year. Wild bees are important to the larger ecosystem, likely integral to maintaining the habitat for other species that indirectly affect humans, Ricketts said.
The designation of these seven bees as endangered species is a start, conservationists say.
In the same ruling, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also designated the band-rumped storm petrel, the orangeblack Hawaiian damselfly and the anchialine pool shrimp as endangered species. The designations take effect Oct. 31.