LAS VEGAS— The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced today it will consider Endangered Species Act protection for the Mojave poppy bee.
Today’s positive finding comes in response to a petition filed in 2018 by the Center for Biological Diversity. This would be the first native, solitary bee in the continental United States to be protected under the Act.
Although it once thrived across much of the Mojave Desert, the quarter-inch-long, yellow-and-black bee is now only found in seven locations in Nevada’s Clark County. The bee’s pollinating skills are tightly linked to the survival of two rare desert poppy flowers. The bee has disappeared as those plants have declined.
“This is a first step toward preventing the extinction of these important native bees, but their survival depends on quickly getting the Endangered Species Act’s full protection,” said Dr. Tara Cornelisse, an entomologist and senior scientist at the Center. “These bees may be tiny but they play an important role in maintaining the health of the unique Mojave Desert ecosystem.”
The Fish and Wildlife Service found that protecting the native bee as threatened or endangered may be warranted due to ongoing threats from grazing, recreation and gypsum mining. Other threats include competition with non-native honeybees and the failure of current state and regional regulatory mechanisms — including the Clark County Multispecies Habitat Conservation Plan — to protect the bee adequately.
The Mojave poppy bee was first described by scientists in 1993. It once inhabited at least 34 known sites across Nevada, California, Arizona and Utah. Its current range is reduced to just seven known sites in the Lake Mead National Recreation Area and adjacent Bureau of Land Management land in Clark County, Nevada. It faces ongoing threats from grazing, mining and motorized recreational vehicles.
The bee is a specialist that pollinates two increasingly rare poppies that produce pollen but no nectar: the Las Vegas bearpoppy and the dwarf bearpoppy. Female Mojave poppy bees collect pollen from the poppies to feed their young, while males aggressively defend flowers for a chance to mate with pollen-collecting females. Consequently both males and females pollinate the rare bearpoppies.
The Las Vegas bearpoppy is protected as a Nevada state critically endangered species. The Center petitioned for federal protection for the Las Vegas bearpoppy in August.
The dwarf bearpoppy is a federally endangered species found only in Washington County, Utah. A leading cause of the dwarf bear-poppy’s ongoing decline — despite its Endangered Species Act protection — is the absence of the Mojave poppy bee, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.
“This poppy bee is a vital part of the Mojave landscape that erupts into a gorgeous floral display in spring, attracting droves of nature lovers to the desert,” said Cornelisse. “Unless this bee is protected, the Mojave Desert is at risk of losing three species that define its essence.”
The Service will now initiate a scientific status review and public comment period before making a final decision on whether to protect the bee.
The disappearance of the Mojave poppy bee is part of a troubling decline in many of the 4,000-plus species of native, wild, mostly solitary bees in the United States that are needed to pollinate the full spectrum of wild plants.
Native bees often provide more effective pollination of native plants than honeybees, which are not native to the United States. Wild pollinator declines across North America are due to habitat loss, agricultural intensification, pesticide use, invasive non-native species, climate change and pathogens.
About 90 percent of wild plants and 75 percent of leading global food crops — including 35 percent of the global food supply — depend on animal pollinators for reproduction, and the great majority of that work is done by bees.
Despite the growing evidence of the decline in bee populations, the rusty patched bumblebee is the only bee in the continental United States currently protected under the Endangered Species Act.