by John R. Platt
Source: Dan Mullen
The imperiled rusty-patched bumblebee, which pollinates blueberries, apples, and other crops, has disappeared from 87 percent of its historic range.
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.
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.
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.