In Brief
  • As of February 10, 2017 the United States government will recognize the rusty-patched bumblebee (Bombus affinis) as an endangered species.
  • At the height of the bees' existence in the 1990s, the rusty-patched bumblebee could be found in great numbers in 31 states – now they can only be found in 13.

Generating Buzz

For the very first time in the history of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a species of bumblebee has been placed on the endangered species list in the continental United States. As of February 10, 2017 the United States government will recognize the rusty-patched bumblebee (Bombus affinis) as an endangered species. Canada placed the species on its endangered list back in 2012. The first time a bee species was placed on the list in the U.S. occurred last October in Hawaii when seven bee species were placed on the list.

At the height of the bees’ existence in the 1990s, the rusty-patched bumblebee could be found in great numbers in 31 states and Canadian provinces. By the start of the new millennium, those numbers diminished by 88 percent, and the territories inhabited by the bees decreased by 87 percent to include only 13 states and Ontario, Canada. “Bumble bees are dying off, vanishing from our farms, gardens, and parks, where they were once found in great numbers,” says Rebecca Riley, Senior Attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

This designation opens the door to a variety of federal resources aimed at the preservation and recovery of the species. Federal funds are available to states which are home to colonies of the bumblebees. The rule cites the species as especially susceptible to habitat degradation given their feeding habits: “The rusty patched bumble bee is one of the first bumble bees to emerge early in the spring and the last to go into hibernation, so to meet its nutritional needs, the species requires a constant and diverse supply of blooming flowers.”

Mass Extinction Stinks

Pollinator endangerment is not just a problem in the United States. Bee populations across the globe are rapidly declining, putting the world’s food crops in danger. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), bumblebees and other pollinating insects are responsible for helping to pollinate 75 percent of the fruits, nuts, and vegetables we eat. Taking bees out of the equation will threaten the world with an unprecedented global food crisis.

Many scientists feel that we have entered into a new epoch in the development of the Earth. The Anthropocene epoch is categorized by the significant role human activity is having on planet Earth. One factor contributing to this decline of bee species are the parasitic varroa mites. These mites were introduced by humans from small areas in Asia to the rest of the world in Australia, Hawaii, and central Africa. Other human factors impacting bee populations include pesticide use and climate change.

Experts are pointing to the possibility of a sixth mass extinction event. And, while a great variety of species are close to the brink of extinction, none would have quite the same impact on humanity’s ability to survive as the bee. Federal protections and resources are just a small part of the effort to sustain these essential animals. More must be done to ensure their sustained survival and re-emergence.