If the rusty-patched bumblebee is extremely lucky, it could soon be the first bee species to be protected under the United States Endangered Species Act.
In response to this rapid decline, the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation in January 2013 petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the rusty-patched bumblebee as an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act. After no action was taken, the group followed up with alawsuit in 2014. Last week the FWS finally responded and agreed that the species may merit protection. The agency will conduct a 12-month review to determine if an Endangered Species Act listing is warranted.
No other bees or bumblebees are listed under the Endangered Species Act, and the move comes amid growing concern about the decline of honeybees, which pollinate a third of the world’s food supply.
“This is a pretty big deal, even though this is just the first step in the listing process,” said Sarina Jepsen, endangered species program director for the Xerces Society, who cowrote the initial petition. Listing the species could not only help preserve it, she said, but also help the many plants that it has historically pollinated, including wildflowers and commercial crops such as blueberries, cranberries, apples, and alfalfa.
As with other disappearing bees, the rusty-patched bumblebee’s decline seems to stem from a complex mix of threats, including habitat loss, pesticides, climate change, parasites, and diseases. One of the greatest threats—and probably the biggest reason for this species’ decline, according to Jepsen—is the transmission of diseases to wild populations from commercially managed bumblebees, which are trucked around the country to pollinate farms.
“The research that has been done shows that in many cases managed bumblebees are full of a variety of pathogens that are harmful to wild bumblebees,” Jepsen said, “but we’re still trucking managed bumblebees all over the country. There really are no standards to ensure that they are free of diseases before they’re moved around.”
The Xerces Society and other environmental groups petitioned the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2010 to regulate the movement of commercial bumblebees. No action on that front has been taken.
FWS’ decision to consider listing the rusty-patched bumblebee comes five years after Canada officially protected the species—a move that may have been too late, said bumblebee expert Sheila Colla, assistant professor with York University in Toronto. She pointed out that in the 1970s and 1980s, the rusty-patched bumblebee was the fourth-most-common bumblebee species in Canada. It has since only been found at a single site, once in 2005 and again in 2009.
Despite the possible disappearance from Canada, Colla said the attempts to protect it there were not fruitless. Listing the species freed up funding to conduct surveys, which have occurred annually since 2004. “It also put other species on the radar, as we now know we have to detect losses earlier in the trajectory to be able to conserve a species,” she said.
As for the rusty-patched bumblebees in the U.S., Jepsen said immediate action is a priority.
Will this month’s actions be enough to turn the rusty-patched bumblebee’s luck around? Only time will tell.