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Sarina Jepsen, The Xerces Society

Rusty patched bumblebee now endangered

Profile image for By John Flesher
By John Flesher

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. — The rusty patched bumblebee has become the first bee species in the continental U.S. to be declared endangered after suffering a dramatic population decline over the past 20 years, federal officials said Tuesday.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service first told The Associated Press it was adding the bee to the endangered list before a news release was issued. That means there will be a recovery plan to encourage people to provide more habitat and reduce pesticide usage — many steps that could help other struggling bees and monarch butterflies, which pollinate a wide variety of plants, officials said.

“Pollinators are small but mighty parts of the natural mechanism that sustains us and our world,” said Tom Melius, the service’s Midwest regional director. “Without them, our forests, parks, meadows and shrublands, and the abundant, vibrant life they support, cannot survive, and our crops require laborious, costly pollination by hand.”

The decision drew praise from environmentalists but criticism from the nonprofit American Farm Bureau Federation, which acknowledged the role bees play in pollinating crops but contended the listing could lead to costly regulation of land or chemical use.

“I think we can do better in the private sector, where landowners working collaboratively can come up with protection for these species without intervention and bureaucratic red tape of the federal government,” said Ryan Yates, the group’s director of congressional relations.

The Endangered Species Act prohibits significant modification or degradation of habitat that leads directly to death or injury of listed species. The Fish and Wildlife Service said it hadn’t yet developed a strategy for dealing with private landowners regarding the rusty patched bumblebee, which it said already has disappeared from large-scale farming areas and is found mostly in yards and gardens.

Notable for the rust-colored marking on its back section, the rusty patched bumblebee buzzed across the East Coast and much of the Midwest in high numbers as recently as the 1990s. Today, only scattered populations remain in 13 states — Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia and Wisconsin — and the Canadian province of Ontario. The bee’s historic range and the number of observed colonies have plummeted by about 87 percent since the late 1990s.