PROTECTION FOR POLLINATORS: Conservation Groups and Scientists Push USDA to Save Wild Bumble Bees

SAN FRANCISCO (October 29, 2013) – Leading conservation and science voices renewed their call today for a key federal agency to protect bumble bees in light of numerous threats contributing to population declines. The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Defenders of Wildlife and Dr. Robbin Thorp asked the Secretary of Agriculture to take action on a petition to regulate the movement of commercial bumble bees in order to help control the spread of parasites and pathogens to wild bumble bees—at least one species of which may have already been driven to extinction.

“It has been almost four years since we filed our petition asking that APHIS regulate the movement of commercial bumble bees,” said Sarina Jepsen, endangered species program director of the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation. “Several species of bumble bees are in steep decline and it is urgent that APHIS take action soon to protect these important pollinators.”

Today’s letter comes nearly four years after an initial Petition for Rulemaking, which asked the U. S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) to regulate the movement of commercial bumble bees in order to help control the spread of parasites to wild bees. The agency has not responded, despite dramatic declines in several native bee populations across the country. Researchers believe that pathogens transmitted by commercial bumble bees are likely part of the problem, prompting the call for agency intervention to help stem native bumble bee losses and avert the associated impacts on the American food system. 

“Without immediate agency intervention we will likely continue to see a dramatic decline in bumble bee pollinators with perilous and potentially irreversible consequences,” Giulia Good Stefani, attorney with NRDC said. “One third of the food on our plates depends on pollinators.  A failure to protect our bumble bees has direct implications for the health of the ecosystems that depend on them and for the security of our food supply.”

Bumble bee pollination is essential to the reproduction of many crops and native flowering plants, and pathogens of bumble bees can act as indirect plant pests that pose a significant threat to agriculture and native ecosystems. “It is critical that we use our managed pollinators wisely for the benefit of agriculture and that we ensure the protection of our non-managed pollinator resources,” said Dr. Robbin Thorp, a bumble bee researcher and professor emeritus of U.C. Davis.

In order to prevent the spread of disease to wild populations of agriculturally significant bee pollinators, petitioners asked APHIS to use its authority to regulate commercial bumble bees. Specifically, APHIS should create rules prohibiting the movement of bumble bees outside of their native ranges and regulate interstate movement of bumble bee pollinators within their native ranges by requiring permits that show that bumble bees are certified as disease-free prior to movement.

“Pollinators in the U.S., including bumble bees, play a vital role in the environment,” said Jason Rylander, staff attorney at Defenders of Wildlife.  “With some precautionary guidelines in place, we can protect our native bee populations so they can continue to pollinate native plants and important food crops.” 

The unregulated interstate movement of bumble bees outside their native ranges may have already introduced diseases that have led to the rapid endangerment of four formerly common bee pollinators and the possible extinction of a fifth bumble bee: the last reported sighting of a Franklin’s bee (Bombus franklini) was in August of 2006, and, without regulation, the western bumble bee (Bombus occidentalis), the rusty patched bumble bee (Bombus affinis), the yellowbanded bumble bee (Bombus terricola), and the American bumble bee (Bombus pensylvanicus) are each in danger of disappearing throughout significant portions of their distribution ranges. 

To read more about declining bumble bees, and to read the letter and the petition please visit the Xerces Society’s website.