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U.S. Government Sued By Activists Seeking Endangered Status of Bees Vital To Pollinating Staple Crops

Rusty patch bumble bee. Photo by Headline & Global News.

While most people don’t give much thought, if any, to how important bees are to our lives by pollinating some of our most basic fruits, vegetables, and grains, activists are taking notice and making efforts to stop their declining numbers in the wild, resulting from multiple threats including habitat destruction, pesticides, and pathogens.

To really understand the important role of bees, Achim Steiner, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Executive Director, says, “The fact is that of the 100 crop species that provide 90 percent of the world’s food, over 70 are pollinated by bees.”

In the United States, an important pollinator that conservation groups are currently trying to protect is the rusty patch bumble bee, which is an important pollinator of crops including tomatoes, apples, cranberries, blueberries, and alfalfa.

Last year, the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation together with the Natural Resources Defense Council filed a petition with the U.S. Department of the Interior and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to have the rusty patch bumble bee considered for protection under the Endangered Species Act.

To understand the process, under the law, the Secretary of the Interior is required to make an initial response, within 90 days, of whether or not a petition provides enough information to support a protection request.

If the Secretary finds that there is enough information that a species might be considered for protection, then the agency has up to a year to make a final decision on the protection status.

Then, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is legally responsible for listing decisions for species such as the rusty patch. Neither agency ever responded to this initial petition

Earlier this year, the conservation groups filed a complaint with the District Court in Washington, D.C., urging the court to order the agencies to make a 90-day finding and publish it in the Federal Register. A decision is still pending.

The conservation groups explained that among the reasons this particular bee is important is because of its ability to buzz pollinate, which means that the vibrations or buzzing from its wings dislodge plant pollen and facilitate the fertilization process.  

A number of our staple foods such as the tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, eggplants, blueberries, and cranberries can only be fertilized through buzz pollination, and there are very few types of bees can do this kind of pollination.

Honeybees don’t buzz pollinate, and the San Francisco online magazine Bay Nature explains that many of the plants that do produce these staples crops “do not produce nectar, so honeybees ignore them anyway.”

Bay Nature adds that while “bumble bees and other native bees were long ignored by farmers because they produce little or no honey and don’t form large, portable colonies like honeybees,” they are starting to be recognized for their role as “important crop pollinators, especially in these times of declining honeybee populations.”

And, honeybees aren’t the only ones on the decline. Xerces explained in its complaint that the rusty patch bumble bee – whose range historically spread across the eastern United States from southern Maine to Georgia and west into states including Minnesota, Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, and North Dakota – has lost more than 70 percent of its historic habitat range.

Xerces has listed several contributing factors to the decline of the rusty patch bumble bees including pesticides, parasites, pathogens, and destruction of habitats.

Parasites and pathogens cited in the complaint were attributed as having effects on the bees including interfering with cognitive ability to forager, declining reproductive rates and lifespans, deformed wings, and lethargic behavior.

Xerces speculates that one aspect of the problem is the increased use of commercial bumble bees, which are often shipped to the United States from oversees, and may be introducing new pathogens into the wild populations.

Giving credence to this theory, a UNEP report found that “new kinds of virulent fungal pathogens that can be deadly to bees and other pollinators are now showing up worldwide, migrating from one region to another due to shipments linked to globalization and rapidly growing international trade.”

Besides pathogens and parasites, the UNEP report also said the increasing number of chemicals in agriculture are being found to damage bees and weakening their immune systems with laboratory studies showing that “some insecticides and fungicides can act together to be 1,000 times more toxic to bees.”

Similarly, Xerces said in its complaint that pesticides, insecticides, and herbicides which are widely used in agriculture, urban, and even natural areas “can exert lethal and sublethal toxic effects on (the) rusty patch bumble bees.”

The group also specifically referenced the harmful impacts of neonicotinoid pesticides, saying that, “When used on plants, neonicotinoids are absorbed and transferred through the vascular system (of a plant), making the plant itself – and its pollen and nectar – toxic to bees.”

Beyond the threat of pesticides, habitat destruction is another issue that threatens bees, which was also highlighted in the Xerces complaint.

The complaint expressed concerns over habitat destruction resulting from activities including agricultural development, grazing, and urban development, citing issues including decreased nectar supplies, fewer nesting sites, and “limited overwintering sites for hibernating queens.”

 Another issue resulting from habitat destruction cited in the complaint is that:

Small bumble bee populations and fragmented habitats can affect bumble bee genetic diversity. Bees existing in isolated patches of habitat tend to inbreed, and when this happens, overall population fitness can rapidly become reduced. Inbreeding can also result in the production of sterile male bees.

To begin the process of initiating measures to protect the rusty patch bumble bee, Xerces needs the court to force the Department of the Interior to make an initial decision about the validity of the group’s concerns, and right now, it’s still a waiting game.

Reader comments and input are always welcomed.

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