Update 3/21/17: After imposing a freeze on the rusty patched bumblebee's protections last month (one day before they were set to take effect), the Trump administration reversed course and listed the species as endangered after all.
I wanted to bring you the story of Bombus affinis, the first bumblebee species to receive Endangered Species Act protections in the history of the United States.
I wanted to tell you that although populations of this bee have declined by 87 percent since the late 1990s, the government and its army of dedicated scientists are drawing up plans to snatch these buzzers out of the jaws of extinction.
I wanted to tell you that by listing the rusty patched bumblebee, as it’s more commonly known, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is also laying the groundwork for protecting native pollinators across 28 states—as well as all the insects, birds, mammals, and other species that share habitat with the bee.
But I cannot tell you that story―because, alas, it may no longer be true.
On January 20, the Trump administration unleashed an “immediate regulatory freeze” so his incoming lawmakers could review all new legislation that’s on the books but yet to be enacted. Unfortunately for the rusty patched bumblebee, its protections, set to take effect on February 10, are now at the mercy of an administration that looks more like the bad guys in Avatar with every passing day.
“The Fish and Wildlife Service made a finding, and it was that if we don’t do anything now, the rusty patched bumblebee will go extinct, and it will go extinct soon,” says Rebecca Riley, a senior attorney who specializes in wildlife issues for NRDC. “If the Trump administration were to come in and reverse that decision, it would be illegal, and we would strongly consider challenging it in court.”
The future of the rusty patched bumblebee hangs in the balance, but before you march off to Facebook to lament the bee’s fate, get armed with the facts.
Since the late 1990s, rusty patched bumblebees have been disappearing from all over the eastern United States. Scientists can’t pinpoint a single cause for the RPB’s drastic downfall but suggest several are involved. One possible factor is a parasitic fungus called Nosema bombi, which compromises the ability of various bumblebee species to reproduce. There’s a possibility that farmers have been spreading this pathogen around the country via the commercially raised bumblebees they use to pollinate greenhouse crops. Pesticides that target insects and herbicides that kill the plants the bees feed on can also hurt RPB populations.
“We [Americans] use persistent and highly toxic insecticides in a prophylactic manner, rather than in response to a specific threat,” says Rich Hatfield, senior endangered species conservation biologist with the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation. “This puts our beneficial insects in harm’s way unnecessarily.”
Fragmented habitat and climate change round out the RPB’s threats. But don’t despair just yet, says Hatfield. “The good news is that because these are all human caused, we can reverse them, and federal protections will help.”
That is, if those protections actually go through. And even then, there are no guarantees.
“To be honest, only time will tell if this listing will help to save the rusty patched bumblebee,” says Clay Bolt, a natural history and conservation photographer. “It is a very bad decline, and we’re already late in doing something about this.”
Bolt and a crew of filmmakers spent several years traveling across the eastern half of the country, searching for rusty patched bumblebees. (A Ghost in the Making: Searching for the Rusty-Patched Bumble Bee was coproduced by Bolt and Day’s Edge Productions, with support from the Xerces Society and others.) Just over 20 years ago, the insects would have been easy to find. RPBs were once buzzing in 28 states and two Canadian provinces. That range, however, has shriveled to just a few holdout colonies in 13 states and one province—at least we think so. In its assessment, the USFWS says that many of these populations haven’t been reconfirmed since 2000, and it’s possible they “may no longer persist.”
Right now, every single remaining rusty patched bumblebee is nestled below ground waiting for the seasons to change. Last summer’s workers, drones, and queens have all gone to the great aster patch in the sky. At this moment the entire species is composed of young females, a fresh generation of queens tasked with repopulating the earth as soon as it’s warm enough to bumble.
If the Trump administration honors the listing, these queens will wake up to a USFWS-devised species recovery plan. According to the plan, government scientists would try to protect remaining populations by establishing critical habitat in which the species can rebuild its numbers without significant human disturbance. The service would also assess any new land-use and development projects in RPB-inhabited areas. Finally, the listing would help state and local agencies get funding for conserving rusty patched bumblebees and the flowers they harvest.
At this point, though, all those protections seem like a big if. Several members of the GOP announced earlier this month that they would “love to invalidate” the Endangered Species Act. If the party gets its way, which now seems eminently more possible, the animals would lose their habitat protections anywhere they conflict with mining, oil and gas, or timber operations. But this gambit may be more unpopular than the lawmakers anticipate.
More than 130,000 people came out of the woodwork to petition for the RPB’s listing. That’s more people who care about an inconspicuous little insect than would fit in any NFL stadium. Now imagine how many more would rise up in defense of the law that saved the bald eagle—and the one currently helping to save sea turtles, elephants, and otters.
The rusty patched bumblebees will be stirring soon. So will we—and hopefully, our senators will wake up, too.
onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.