There are many “firsts” worth getting excited about. We memorialize first steps, first jobs, first anniversaries; first big milestones are often a cause for parties and celebration.
But for the first time ever, a U.S. bumblebee species has been placed on the Endangered Species List. This first, designating the rusty patched bumble bee (Bombus affinis) as vulnerable, brings no joy.
Not that getting the designation was easy. It took five years for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation to finally get the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to concede to the listing – and that was only after the Trump administration could no longer delay the action. The listing was finalized on January 11, 2017, with a scheduled announcement date of February 10, 2017. But efforts to postpone and review Obama-era regulations bought them some extra time. The listing finally became official on March 22.
The rusty patched bumble bee, (named for the reddish patch on its abdomen), used to live on the prairies and in the tall grasslands of 31 states in the Midwest, Eastern United States, and Canada. Now they’ve been traced to only twelve states and Ontario, with an estimated 90+ percent population decline.
The bumble bee isn’t the first U.S. bee to be listed as endangered. Seven species of Hawaiian yellow-faced bee recently received the designation, due to a similar problem: loss of habitat, pesticides, and diseases and parasites. Nor does the listing offer guaranteed protection. Already, industry groups like the American Petroleum Institute, National Cotton Council of America, National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, and National Association of Home Builders, in addition to two entities of the Secretary of the Interior and Acting Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are taking action to fight the ruling.
While it’s small surprise industry groups are sabre rattling, it’s more perplexing the U.S. government wouldn’t offer full-throated support of the bees’ protection. Bumble bees contribute more than $3 billion to the economy through their role in pollinating a third of U.S. crops. Yet 347 native North American bee species and Hawaii are headed toward extinction, and 749 additional bee species are not far behind.
It remains unclear how most of our food plants will be pollinated if the bees disappear. Short this answer, one small protection is a big step in the right direction.
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