The Disappearing Bumble Bees

By MATTHEW DIFEDE / Staff Writer

On February 10, the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) added the rusty patched bumble bee to the endangered species list. The listing of an endangered species gives authority to the FWS to buy important habitats, give aid to State wildlife agencies and carry out recovery plans.  The rusty patched bumble bee is the first bee in the contiguous US to be added to the endangered species list.

bee graph

Credit: beeinformed.org

According to the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC), the rusty patched bumble bee is a bee native to North America and pollinates at least 65 different plants. It is a primary pollinator of apples and raspberries as well as many other ecologically important plants. The loss of the rusty patched bumble could mean the loss of plants that provide a food source to many mammals and birds. The rusty patched bumble bee is also important to First Nations people. Information from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations shows some plants that are pollinated by the rusty patched bumble bee such as Spiaraea and Aralia are used in teas for medicinal uses. Other plants, such as Rubus that produces blackberries and raspberries, are dried and eaten by First Nations people.

According to the FWS, the population of the rusty patched bumble bee, once common in 28 states and 2 Canadian provinces, has plunged 87% since the 1990s. It now only resides in 13 states and Ontario in scattered populations. The cause of this decline is not due to one problem but rather a toxic concoction of disease, pesticides, climate change, and habitat loss. The natural habitats of the once lush prairies and grasslands of the Northeast and Midwest have been poisoned by pesticides that directly kill native bee populations. These problems are not limited to native bumble bee populations.

Honey bees, which Europeans brought to the U.S. in the 1600s, are also on the decline. According to a 2014 press release from the White House, honey bee colonies have dropped more than 50% since 1947, with only 2.5 million colonies left in the United States. Beekeepers have collectively lost approximately 10 million beehives at a cost of $2 billion. Data compiled by the USDA, Bee Informed Partnership, and Apiary Inspectors of America has shown that beekeepers have lost 44% of their colonies between 2015 and 2016.

bee bee bee

Honey bees and bumble bees contribute a combined $26 billion dollars to the U.S. economy. California’s almond industry, which is exclusively pollinated by bees, uses 60% of all U.S. beehives and produces 80% of the world’s almonds. In an NPR interview, Gene Brandi, vice president of the American Bee Federation, states that it takes up to 1.7 million colonies to pollinate the 800,000 acre almond fields of California. To accommodate for the massive fields, 80-90% of the nation’s bees are shipped to California by semi-truck. According to Scientific American, 31 billion bees are imported for the 2 week blooming period to produce around 700 billion almonds. And it’s not just almonds. Other crops pollinated by bees include: apples, oranges, avocados and all berries. In fact, one study determined that strawberries pollinated by bees have a lengthier shelf life, fewer malformations, and a more intense color when compared to wind-pollinated or self-pollinated strawberries.

To combat the decline of our helpful little friends, the White House in 2014 issued a memorandum creating the Pollinator Task Force. Comprised of the heads of 14 departments, and co-chaired by the Secretary of Agriculture and Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Its mission focuses on increasing and improving pollinator habitats as well as a Pollinator Research Action Plan. In 2017, as part of the task force, the EPA implemented policy that includes the limit and re-evaluation of pesticides as well as halting the approval of new neonicotinoid pesticide uses until more bee data is submitted. If you’d like to help with bee conservation, the Xerxes Society has created bumblebeewatch.org to record bumble bee sightings in your area.

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