For the second time within a year, the federal government has decided to study whether it needs to step in to try to save bees. Many worry, however, that this decision might prove to be a case of too little, too late.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service announced on March 15 that it will consider whether to include the Western bumblebee and the Yellow-banded bumblebee on the list of protected species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
Currently, no bees are listed as threatened or endangered under the ESA. That's a little surprising, given all the attention Colony Collapse Disorder and bee disappearance have been getting for the last few years.
That said, however, this week's proposal is not the first time the Service has agreed to look at protecting a bee under the Act. In September 2015, it agreed to study whether the rusty-patched bumble bee ought to be listed under the Act. It took a 2013 petition followed by a 2014 lawsuit from the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation to make that happen.
Prior to that, the Service sought information regarding a potential listing of Franklin's bumble bee. That was in 2010, and to date it has not further acted on the information submitted.
This time, Defenders of Wildlife took the lead, filing petitions in September 2015 requesting these two species of bees be listed as endangered or at least threatened. Their concern for these bees seems well founded.
Western bumble bees (Bombus occidentalis) once were the most common bumble bee in western North America. Isn't that sad? In the blink of an eye, they've gone from practically ubiquitous to almost gone. According to the research cited in the Defenders of Wildlife petition, the Western bumble bee "went from being one of the common bees in West to being almost non-existent in large portions of its range in a span of just fifteen years."
Wild bumble bees like the Western bumble bee are simply better than commercially reared honey bees at pollinating crops like greenhouse tomatoes, greenhouse sweet peppers, blueberries and cranberries, according to the listing petition. In fact, bumble bees are considered the single best pollinators America has for cranberry crops. Their loss would be devastating.
"They provide (pollination) services all over the nation for free that otherwise people have to hire beekeepers to provide," Jay Tutchton, a Defenders of Wildlife staff attorney, told the Associated Press. "These are species that are very valuable to humanity."
Similarly, once there were great numbers of the yellow-banded bumble bee (Bombus terricola), another excellent pollinator, in the northeast and midwestern US, as well as in Canada. That's no longer true.
The listing petition for the yellow-banded bumble bee notes that in one city, researchers found 119 of them during a survey conducted in the early 1970s. When they surveyed again between 2004 and 2006, the found just one. Nationwide, at 382 survey sites, researchers found only 31 members of this species between 2007 and 2009.
What's to blame for the decline in bee populations? The debate rages on. It's still something of a mystery, but the listing petitions cite research that points to a few important factors. Commercially reared bees may be passing diseases on to their wild cousins. Insecticides such as neonicotinoids may play a part.
Neonicotinoids are a recently developed type of water soluable insecticide, meaning they can be taken up by plants in the water they drink. So, yes, if you're not eating organic you may well be eating this pesticide. Washing off the surface doesn't remove the problem in this case.
Habitat destruction, fragmentation and loss, population dynamics, and the effects of climate change may also facilitate the escalating march to bee extinction. Further study must be done, and quickly.
"We're concerned that the process not drag out too long," Tutchton told the Denver Post. "If it does, we could be losing an entire family of native bees, which would be very alarming to agriculture and environment interests alike." This concern is understandable. Remember, the US Fish and Wildlife is still reviewing information from 2010 submitted on Franklin's bumble bee.
If listing on the ESA is approved, potential protective measures might include restrictions on pesticide use in habitat areas critical to bee survival, as well as requirements to ensure commercially bred bees are free of disease before they can be imported or transported from state to state.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service is currently seeking additional scientific and commercial data to help it determine whether to proceed with listing these species. Let's keep our fingers crossed that the Service sees enough convincing data to get it to move out smartly. The bees really don't have a lot of time left. When they go, we're in big trouble.