A beleaguered wild bee species has become the first in the continental United States to be declared endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). The rusty patched bumblebee (Bombus affinis) was formally listed as endangered on March 21, 2017, after the Trump administration lifted a hold it had placed on federal protections proposed by the Obama administration in 2016.
The rusty patched bumblebee was once abundant across a wide swath of North America that included 28 U.S. states and two provinces in Canada. But the past couple of decades have been rough for these buzzing critters — they've suffered an 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, rusty patched bumblebees exist 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 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 bumblebee plays an important role in pollinating plants and wildflowers — which in turn provide habitats and sustenance for other wildlife. Wild bees are also a vital force in ensuring the success of commercial agriculture.
"Bumblebees are able to fly in cooler temperatures and lower light levels than many other bees, such as honeybees, making them excellent pollinators for crops like tomatoes, peppers and cranberries," according to a press release by the FWS. "Even where crops can be self-pollinated, the plant produces more and bigger fruits when pollinated by bumblebees."
“The rusty patched bumblebee is among a group of pollinators — including the monarch — experiencing serious declines across the country,” FWS 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 bumblebees? The FWS 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.