It's Official: First Bumble Bee Species Listed as Endangered in 'Race Against Extinction'
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has declared the rusty patched bumble bee an endangered species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA). This is the first-ever bumble bee in the U.S., and the first wild bee of any kind in the contiguous 48 states, to receive ESA protection.
This landmark decision was made in "a race against extinction" of the Bombus affinis which is "balancing precariously on the brink of extinction," the agency said in its announcement Tuesday.
The bee, known for its distinctive reddish mark on its abdomen, was once common and abundant across 28 states from Connecticut to South Dakota, the District of Columbia and two Canadian provinces, but has plummeted by 87 percent since the late 1990s. Only small, scattered populations remain in 13 states and one province.
"The rusty patched bumble bee is among a group of pollinators—including the monarch butterfly—experiencing serious declines across the country," USFWS Midwest Regional Director Tom Melius said. "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."
The rusty patched bumble bee is already listed as "endangered" under Canada's Species at Risk Act and as "critically endangered" on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List.
The insect is an important pollinator of prairie wildflowers, as well as food crops such as cranberries, blueberries, apples, alfalfa and more.
"Bumble bees are especially good pollinators; even plants that can self-pollinate produce more and bigger fruit when pollinated by bumble bees," the USFWS said. "Each year, insects, mostly bees, provide pollination services valued at an estimated $3 billion in the United States."
According to the invertebrate conservation group Xerces Society, the rusty patched bumble bee's faces a number of threats including the spread of pests and diseases by the commercial bumble bee industry, other pests and diseases, habitat destruction or alteration, pesticides, invasive species, natural pest or predator population cycles and climate change.
The group and its partners have petitioned the government for the listing of the insect for years.
"We are very pleased to see one of North America's most endangered species receive the protection it needs," Sarina Jepsen, director of endangered species at the Xerces Society, said in reaction to the listing. "Now that the Fish and Wildlife Service has listed the rusty patched bumble bee as endangered, it stands a chance of surviving the many threats it faces—from the use of neonicotinoid pesticides to diseases."
The use of highly toxic insecticides known as neonicotinoids have been identified as a major culprit to the widespread decline of pollinator species. Germany, France and Italy have banned neonicotinoids and in March, Maryland became the first U.S. state to pass strict restrictions on neonicotinoids for consumer use to protect its bees.
THIS IS HUGE! Maryland to Become First State to Ban Bee-Killing Pesticides for Consumer Use https://t.co/9hSD7N7b7r https://t.co/rEG3UMvope— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1458922022.0
Specifically, the use of neonicotinoids continues to grow throughout the range of the rusty patched bumble bee.
"A number of scientific articles clearly document the lethal and sublethal effects that these chemicals are having on bees and other pollinators, and their use has intensified extensively within the rusty patched bumble bee's range during the same time period that declines have been observed," the Xerces Society explains.
The Xerces Society also suggests that the massive rise in the use of the controversial herbicide glyphosate on genetically modified corn and soybean fields in the last 20 years has effectively eliminated milkweed and other wildflowers from the agricultural landscape.
"While no direct link has been made from the use of these pesticides to the declines observed in the rusty patched bumble bee there is little doubt that stressors like pesticides at the very least put increased pressures on an already imperiled bumble bee, especially when one considers the scope at which these chemicals are being adopted and used," the group points out.
Lori Ann Burd, director of the Center for Biological Diversity's environmental health program, also warned that neonicotinoids are a particular threat to pollinators and urges the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to rein in use of "bee-killing pesticides."
"The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's wise decision to protect the rusty patch bumble bee as endangered acknowledges the much larger threat dangerous neonicotinoid pesticides pose to all of the world's pollinating insects, including the 4000 species of wild bees right here in North America," Burd said. "Until the Environmental Protection Agency takes the necessary steps to rein in the reckless use of bee-killing pesticides on hundreds of millions of acres on the American landscape, we'll continue to see declines of the pollinators critical to the long-term health of our ecosystems."
Rebecca Riley, senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), who partnered with the Xerces Society to encourage the USFWS to take action on the listing petition for this species, also praised the new designation.
Riley called the listing "the best—and probably last—hope for the recovery of the rusty patched bumble bee."
The final rule listing the rusty patched bumble bee as endangered will be listed in the Federal Register on Wednesday and takes effect on Feb. 10.
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Clear-cutting a forest is relatively easy—just pick a tree and start chopping. But there are benefits to more sophisticated forest management. One technique—which involves repeatedly harvesting smaller trees every 30 or so years but leaving an upper story of larger trees for longer periods (60, 90, or 120 years)—ensures a steady supply of both firewood and construction timber.
A Pattern in the Rings<p>The <a href="https://www.encyclopedia.com/science/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/coppice-standards-0" target="_blank">coppice-with-standards</a> management practice produces a two-story forest, said <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Bernhard_Muigg" target="_blank">Bernhard Muigg</a>, a dendrochronologist at the University of Freiburg in Germany. "You have an upper story of single trees that are allowed to grow for several understory generations."</p><p>That arrangement imprints a characteristic tree ring pattern in a forest's upper story trees (the "standards"): thick rings indicative of heavy growth, which show up at regular intervals as the surrounding smaller trees are cut down. "The trees are growing faster," said Muigg. "You can really see it with your naked eye."</p><p>Muigg and his collaborators characterized that <a href="https://ltrr.arizona.edu/about/treerings" target="_blank">dendrochronological pattern</a> in 161 oak trees growing in central Germany, one of the few remaining sites in Europe with actively managed coppice-with-standards forests. They found up to nine cycles of heavy growth in the trees, the oldest of which was planted in 1761. The researchers then turned to a historical data set — more than 2,000 oak <a href="https://eos.org/articles/podcast-discovering-europes-history-through-its-timbers" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">timbers from buildings and archaeological sites</a> in Germany and France dating from between 300 and 2015 — to look for a similar pattern.</p>
A Gap of 500 Years<p>The team found wood with the characteristic coppice-with-standards tree ring pattern dating to as early as the 6th century. That was a surprise, Muigg and his colleagues concluded, because the first mention of this forest management practice in historical documents occurred only roughly 500 years later, in the 13th century.</p><p>It's probable that forest management practices were not well documented prior to the High Middle Ages (1000–1250), the researchers suggested. "Forests are mainly mentioned in the context of royal hunting interests or donations," said Muigg. Dendrochronological studies are particularly important because they can reveal information not captured by a sparse historical record, he added.</p><p>These results were <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-78933-8" target="_blank">published in December in <em>Scientific Reports</em></a>.</p><p>"It's nice to see the longevity and the history of coppice-with-standards," said <a href="https://www.teagasc.ie/contact/staff-directory/s/ian-short/" target="_blank">Ian Short</a>, a forestry researcher at Teagasc, the Agriculture and Food Development Authority in Ireland, not involved in the research. This technique is valuable because it promotes conservation and habitat biodiversity, Short said. "In the next 10 or 20 years, I think we'll see more coppice-with-standards coming back into production."</p><p>In the future, Muigg and his collaborators hope to analyze a larger sample of historic timbers to trace how the coppice-with-standards practice spread throughout Europe. It will be interesting to understand where this technique originated and how it propagated, said Muigg, and there are plenty of old pieces of wood waiting to be analyzed. "There [are] tons of dendrochronological data."</p><p><em><a href="mailto:email@example.com" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Katherine Kornei</a> is a freelance science journalist covering Earth and space science. Her bylines frequently appear in Eos, Science, and The New York Times. Katherine holds a Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of California, Los Angeles.</em></p><p><em>This story originally appeared in <a href="https://eos.org/articles/tree-rings-reveal-how-ancient-forests-were-managed" target="_blank">Eos</a></em> <em>and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.</em></p>
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