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Conservationsists Move to Save Disappearing Bumble Bee
01/31/2013   Reported By: Jennifer Mitchell

You may be aware that European honeybee populations have experienced steep declines in recent years. But they're not the only ones. Another bee is also struggling for survival, and this one is native to the United States. It's the rusty-patched bumble bee. And as Jennifer Mitchell reports, insect conservationists are taking steps to make it the first bumble bee officially listed as an endangered species in America.

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rusty-patched bumble bee

It's already been listed as endangered in Canada, where only three of the fuzzy, orange-dotted bees have been observed in the wild over the last 10 years. Bombus affinis, or the rusty-patched bumble bee (right), was once a common sight in fields across most of northeastern North America, from Ontario all the way to the southern United States.

Maine was smack in the middle of its range. "Relatively recently, it's disappeared from more than 85 percent of its historic range," says Sarina Jepson, who is with the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation in Washington.

Jepson says this is why her group, with support from other conservationists around the country, has filed a petition with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service asking that Bombus affinis, a formerly busy pollinator, be protected.

"Pollinators, in general, contribute to the pollination of more than 85 percent of our flowering plants, and they actually contribute to one in three bites of food that we eat," Jepson says. So the world really can't afford to lose even a single pollinator species, she says.

But it's hard to know how to save a disappearing bee when you don't really know why it's gone. There are several hypotheses on why the rusty-patched bumble bee might be declining through much of the Northeast, says Frank Drummond, an insect specialist with the University of Maine.

Possible stressors may include pesticides from commercial and private gardens, or pathogens from other, non-native bee species. The disappearance could also be linked to the region's vanishing agrarian lifestyle.

"From New England's perspective, it used to be that New England was much less forested than it is now, and forest habitats are not the best foraging areas for bees," Drummond says. "And now Maine is the most forested state in the continental U.S."

All those flowery cow pastures and hay meadows of the last few centuries acted as one big bee salad bar, and that can't be overlooked, he says.

U.S. Fish & Wildlife has a year in which to respond to the petition to add the rusty-patched bumble bee to its protected rolls. If endangered status is granted, it's unclear what would happen next. According to Sarina Jepson with the Xerces Society, the listing would at least mean some protection for bee forage, and a closer look at site-specific threats such as pesticide application.

But she says landowners need not fear draconian restrictions; the government would most likely work with landowners to preserve land use while promoting bee habitat.


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