WASHINGTON— Conservation groups petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today to grant Endangered Species Act protection to the American bumblebee.
The petition was filed by the Center for Biological Diversity and the Bombus Pollinator Association of Law Students of Albany Law School.
Once among the nation’s most commonly observed bumblebees from coast to coast, the bee has declined by an estimated 89% in just the past 20 years.
“We’re asking President Biden to be the hero that steps up and saves the American bumblebee from extinction,” said Jess Tyler, an entomologist and staff scientist at the Center. “It’s unthinkable that we would carelessly allow this fuzzy, black-and-yellow beauty to disappear forever.”
The highly adaptable forager was once a common sight across grasslands, fields and open spaces in 47 of the lower 48 states. But habitat loss, pesticides, disease, climate change and competition from honeybees have contributed to the insect’s dramatic decline, including its disappearance from eight states.
The states that have seen some of the largest declines of the bee over the past two decades are the same states that have seen the largest increases in use of the neonicotinoid pesticides that are well documented to harm such pollinators.
In New York state, the American bumblebee has declined an estimated 99% from historic levels, according to the New York Department of Environmental Conservation. In Illinois, where the bee once represented 1 in 4 bumblebee sightings, it has disappeared from the northern part of the state and, overall, is down an estimated 74% since 2004.
First described before the United States won its independence, American bumblebees are known by their distinctive black-and-yellow, furry color pattern. They’re social insects who live in colonies that can number in the hundreds, with workers and a single queen. They make their nests in pre-existing cavities like rodent burrows and rotten logs, or on the surface of the ground in large grass bunches.
“It’s unfortunate that we’re forced to call upon the Endangered Species Act to protect a species so fundamental to human and ecosystem health,” said Keith Hirokawa, a professor of law at Albany Law School. “It is our hope that the Biden administration grasps the gravity of this moment.”
The bee is a foraging generalist that provides essential pollination services to a wide variety of plants, native and cultivated, across its vast range. Its largest remaining populations are in the southern Great Plains and Southeast, but the bees are also found in southwestern deserts and historically as far north as North Dakota and Maine.
They can survive in a wide range of habitats, including urban areas. The loss of such a wide-ranging generalist would have considerable consequences for entire ecosystems and crop production.
“Pollinators such as the American bumblebee are essential if we intend to combat climate change successfully,” said Claire Burke, a student at Albany Law School. “Without Bombus pensylvanicus spanning 47 of the lower 48 states, vegetation at the heart of the food chain for animals and humans will be hard pressed to reproduce and survive.”
The species’ decline has been driven by multiple concurrent threats. Habitat loss and degradation are limiting nutrition from diverse pollen and nectar sources and weakening bumblebee immune systems. Pesticide use reduces survival and harms reproduction as well as immune systems, and weakened immune systems make the bees more susceptible to diseases that are spread by domesticated bumblebees and honeybees.
“There’s no question that human activities have pushed this bee toward extinction, so we have the ability to wake up, reverse course, and save it,” said Tyler. “But this late in the game, it’s going to take the powerful tools provided only by the Endangered Species Act to get the job done. Anything short of that and we risk losing this iconic part of the American landscape forever.”