American Bumble Bee Could Be Next on Endangered Species List, And Honey Bees Could Be Part of the Problem

The rusty patched bumble bee, pictured here, was the first bee in the continental U.S. to receive an endangered species listing. More bumble bees are now being considered. (Courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)The rusty patched bumble bee, pictured here, was the first bee in the continental U.S. to receive an endangered species listing. More bumble bees are now being considered. (Courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

One of North America’s most common native bumble bee species, the aptly named American bumble bee, is on the ropes. It’s lost nearly 90% of its former abundance in the last 20 years, a precipitous decline that could earn the insect a place on the list of U.S. endangered species.

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This week, officials took an important first step toward protecting the bee.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced it had completed its initial review of a petition requesting the endangered listing for the bee and determined it contained enough credible information to suggest a listing could be warranted. 

The petition, filed by the Center for Biological Diversity and the Bombus Pollinators Association of Law Students of Albany Law School, now moves to the next phase of the endangered species process.

Among the threats outlined in the petition: disease, habitat destruction, pesticide use, climate change and competition from non-native honey bees. 

For the purposes of the just-completed initial review, Fish and Wildlife only needed to confirm one of those threats as significant. In the case of the American bumble bee, the agency homed in on pathogen spillover from domesticated bumble bees or commercial honey bees, meaning diseases are being carried by and spread from domesticated, non-native species into wild populations.  

The next step in the process is a rigorous 12-month status review, at the end of which Fish and Wildlife will make a finding to list or not list the American bumble bee (scientific name, Bombus pensylvanicus). A third option, a “warranted but precluded” decision, means the species should be listed but others are of higher priority.

“It is encouraging to see the Service take this positive step toward conservation. If this species receives federal protection, an untold number of other pollinators stand to benefit, ultimately improving food security and ecosystem health for our nation,” said Leif Richardson, conservation biologist for the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, in a statement.

About the American Bumble Bee

Bombus pensylvanicus has historically had one of the broadest geographical ranges of any North American bumble bee, found across the continental U.S. in nearly every state as well as parts of Canada and Mexico. 

It forages in grasslands, prairies and open spaces, and when it comes to pollination, the bee is a generalist, serving a wide variety of plants, similar to the rusty patched bumble bee, which in 2017 became the first bee on the endangered list in the continental U.S.

The bee is capable of “buzz” pollination — pollination by vibration — which is particularly effective for tomatoes, among other plants, and not something honey bees can do.

The bees typically make their nests above ground in long grasses, and queens tend to overwinter in rotten wood. And yes, they're black and yellow.

Highlights From the Petition

The petition to list the American bumble bee as an endangered species provided an overview of the bee’s status, past and present, and put forward a combination of factors that have led to its sharp decline. All of these will be thoroughly investigated during the 12-month review. 

— The American bumble bee is no longer found or is extremely rare in 16 states. That includes Illinois, where the bumble bee has disappeared from the northern part of the state and is down 74% overall since 2004. At one point, the American bumble bee accounted for 28% of all bumble bees sampled in Illinois, but is now at just 4.4%. (Discovery of a pair of nests in 2018 in central Illinois, including one near Urbana, was cause for celebration by scientists.)

— The bee’s preferred grassland habitat, which includes native prairie ecosystems, is among the country’s least protected, having declined by up to 99.9%.

— The transport of domesticated bees has introduced new diseases and parasites to wild bumble bee populations. The American bumble bee’s decline started around the year 2000, coinciding with rapid increases in the use of domesticated bumble bees to pollinate crops in greenhouses and outdoors. Regulations do not require bumble bees transported across state lines or regions be free from diseases.

— The upper Midwest, where the American bumble bee population has been decimated, hosts more than 40% of the nation’s honey bee hives. Honey bee colonies contain thousands of individuals and can outcompete native bees for nectar and pollen resources. A small, 40-hive commercial apiary removes an amount of nectar and pollen from an area between June and August that could otherwise provision 4,000,000 native bees.

If the American bumble bee ultimately receives an endangered species listing, it will join the rusty patched bumble bee and the Franklin’s bumble bee, which was added in August 2021. The Franklin’s, which has an extremely restricted range on the West Coast, hasn’t been seen since 2006. 

“We hope that the story of the Franklin’s bumble bee will compel people to prevent further pollinators across the U.S. from sliding toward extinction,” said Scott Black, executive director of the Xerces Society, which led the petition to list the bumble bee.

Documents and comments related to the federal review of the American bumble bee’s status are available online

Contact Patty Wetli: @pattywetli | (773) 509-5623 |  [email protected]

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