In October 2016, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service included seven species of bees from Hawaii in the Federal Lists of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants. And on Tuesday, the agency declared the rusty patched bumblebee (Bombus affinis) an endangered species, making it the first-ever bumblebee in the country, and the first bee of any kind in the 48 contiguous states, to have that unenviable distinction.
The species, which is now on the brink of extinction, was quite common about 20 years ago, and was found in abundance in 28 states and the District of Columbia. But the numbers have fallen by 87 percent since the 1990s, with only small and scattered populations left in 13 states, according to the agency’s website.
Like other bee species, B. affinis is important for pollination of plants that include economically important crops like cranberries, peppers and tomatoes. B. affinis are especially good pollinators, since even plants that can self-pollinate produce more and bigger fruit when pollinated by the rusty patched bumblebee. It is estimated that along with other insects, they provide pollination services worth about $3 billion every year in the U.S.
Tom Melius, Midwest regional director, Fish & Wildlife Service, said in a statement: “The rusty patched bumble bee is among a group of pollinators – including the monarch butterfly – experiencing serious declines across the country. 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.”
Multiple factors are thought to have led to the dramatic decline in the population of this bumblebee. Some of them are loss of habitat, use of pesticides, climate change which affects availability of flowers, as well as diseases and parasites.
“Our top priority is to act quickly to prevent extinction of the rusty patched bumble bee. Listing the bee as endangered will help us mobilize partners and focus resources on finding ways right now to stop the decline,” Melis said in the statement.
The final rule listing the insect as an endangered species will appear in the Federal Register on Jan. 11 and takes effect from Feb. 10.