A beleaguered wild bee has become the first bee species in the continental United States to be declared endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). The rusty patched bumble bee (Bombus affinis) was once found in abundance across a wide swath of North America that included 28 states in the U.S. and two provinces in Canada.
But the past couple of decades have been rough for these buzzing critters — they've suffered a steep 87 percent decline in population since the mid 1990s due to a combination of climate change, pesticide exposure, habitat loss, population fragmentation and transmitted diseases from infected commercial domesticated honeybees.
Today, the rusty patched bumble bee exists only in tiny populations across the Midwest and mid-Atlantic, and they're considered by the IUCN to be critically endangered. They were almost listed as extinct in the state of Virginia until a single specimen was found buzzing just outside of Washington, D.C., in Sky Meadows State Park in 2014. While this surprising discovery offered hope that the species might still have a future along the Eastern Seaboard, the situation remains bleak.
It's unfortunate because, like many other wild bee species, the rusty patched bumble bee plays an important role in pollinating plants and wildflowers — which in turn provide habitats and sustenance for other wildlife. They also are a vital force in ensuring the success of commercial agriculture.
"Bumble bees are able to fly in cooler temperatures and lower light levels than many other bees, such as honey bees, making them excellent pollinators for crops like tomatoes, peppers and cranberries," according to a press release by the USFWS. "Even where crops can be self-pollinated, the plant produces more and bigger fruits when pollinated by bumble bees."
“The rusty patched bumble bee is among a group of pollinators — including the monarch — experiencing serious declines across the country,” USFWS Midwest Regional Director Tom Melius said. “Why is this important? Pollinators are small but mighty parts of the natural mechanism that sustains us and our world. 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.”
Improving the conservation outlook for these charming pollinators will require efforts to protect and restore existing habitats as well as creating long-term research studies involving captive rearing. Wondering what you can do as a concerned citizen to help the plight of rusty patched bumble bees? The USFWS has a few suggestions:
"For populations located in urban areas, citizens can plant native flowers that bloom throughout the growing season and leave flowers on the stem as long as possible, especially in fall. This provides bees with needed resources for making it through the winter and for producing new colonies in the spring. For populations on or near agricultural lands, landowners can refrain from haying in early fall and follow best management practices for pesticide use."
Editor's note: This story has been updated since it was originally published in September 2016.