Saving the Bumblebee

Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2017, was an historic day for bee preservation, according to an article in today’s (Jan. 12) Wall Street Journal.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service named the rusty patched bumblebee to its endangered species list, “the first bee species in the continental U.S. to receive that designation,” the Journal reported, adding that in September, seven yellow-faced bee species found in Hawaii were added to the list.

The designation means that a concerted effort will now be made to stop the decline in the rusty patched bumblebee population. The bee’s numbers have dropped by 87 percent since the late 1990s. An endangered species designation could, for example, affect “the approval process for some construction sites and other land use,” the Journal points out.

Bumblebees face the same dangers as honeybees, including overuse of pesticides, loss of habitat, and attacks from parasites like the varroa mites. But rusty patched bumblebees can fly at colder temperatures than other bees, and their larger size and heavier weight allow them to delve deeply into flowers, like snapdragons, that the smaller honeybees find inaccessible, according to the Journal article. They are important pollinators of such crops as tomatoes, cranberries and peppers, and can be found mainly in the Upper Midwest and Northeast.

So, would the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service take similar action to protect honeybees, which pollinate 70 out of our 100 major crops and add about $15 billion to crops’ value each year? Recent estimates suggest that 42 percent of honeybee colonies collapsed in 2015, significantly higher than the 31 percent that have died each winter for the past 10 years. It’s unclear how high the 42 percent figure would have to go before honeybees get the same recognition, and protection, as their bigger cousins.

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Bees in Cuba

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During a trip to Cuba with my family December 27 to January 3, I spent some time trying to find beehives and beekeepers. I was partially successful: The accompanying photo shows me in front of a collection of hives on the road to Las Terrazas, a pioneer eco-town (now more of a tourist town) about one hour outside of Havana. We didn’t see any beekeepers, although a sign near one of the hives suggested that they are the property of the military. And during a visit to Havana’s Colon Cemetery — one of the largest in the Americas, filled with beautiful Gothic and Neoclassical memorials as well as interesting legends about some famous inhabitants — I had a private moment with a few honeybees. They were busy pollinating a collection of flowers left at a memorial dedicated to a 13-year-old girl and her baby, buried together in an elaborate tomb constructed by the girl’s husband. The bees looked smaller than the ones I am used to seeing in the U.S. but it could have just been my imagination. In any case, it was a nice moment.