Bumblebee feeding among the nettles from a portuguese meadow.
March 23, 2017

Critical US bumblebee listed as endangered

On Tuesday, the rusty patched bumble bee became the first bee from the continental United States to receive federal government protection when it was included in the official list of vulnerable and endangered species.

Once found all across the upper Midwest and Northeastern United States, the bee was given protected status after President Donald Trump's administration removed a hold it had put federal protections proposed by the out-going Obama Administration.

Bumble bees are crucial pollinators of crops like blueberries and cranberries, and are one of the sole insect pollinators of tomatoes in the country, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.

“The exact cause of the loss of the rusty-patched is unclear, but it is almost certainly related to disease, a fungal gut parasite called Nosema bombi, which can shorten the lives of workers and disrupt mating success and survival of queens and males,” T’ai Roulston, a bee researcher at the University of Virginia, said in a news release. “Many other factors stress insect populations as well, including loss of habitat, exposure to agrochemicals, loss of preferred plants, agricultural intensity and climate-related factors, especially on the edge of a species range.”

The Beginning of a Bigger Problem

The rusty patched bumble bee (Bombus affinis) is one of 47 kinds of native bumble bees in the US and Canada, over a quarter of which are in danger of extinction, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

The population and range of the bee have decreased by over 90 percent since the late 1990s. Officially protecting the bee was delayed by a broad rule freeze from the Trump White House on rules issued by the Obama administration.

Roulston said it was unclear how the designation will lead to both the protection and the recovery of the species.

“Currently we don’t know how to vaccinate them. If we could get some into a lab, then possibly we could rear them, breed disease resistance into them, and release them. But the prospects aren’t great,” he said. “Nature, however, already is running that experiment. As the populations dwindle and disappear, we have to hope that somewhere a population arises with disease resistance. Then maybe, as long as there are good habitats remaining, the species can come back.”

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