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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