The Demise of the American Bumble Bee

What do the ecosystems of Maine, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Vermont, Idaho, North Dakota, Wyoming and Oregon have in common? The American Bumble Bee (Bombus pensylvanicus) has disappeared from each.

Quickly becoming extinct American Bumble Bee numbers have declined by approximately 90% over the last twenty years. The American Bumble Bee is disappearing across the United States. Another eight states have rapidly falling populations. This includes Illinois with a nearly 75% drop and New York reporting a 99% loss of the species.

Cause of the American Bumble Bee collapse

Of the 50 bumble bee species found in the U. S. fewer appear each spring due to a number of threats. Populations remain stable across the southern Great Plains states of Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas.

However, this may be temporary due to climate change. The bumble bee cannot survive rising temperatures across their range. Research shows that range has shrunk by approximately 185 miles north to south. Bumble bees are seemingly dying of heat stroke. 

Add that to the other damaging factors both man-made (habitat loss, livestock grazing, pesticide use) and natural (diseases, parasites, and predators). These contribute to why the American Bumble Bee is disappearing. In a 2022 study the journal Science reported these threats as continued decline puts the species firmly on the path of extinction.

(BTW: According to the Bee Informed Partnership even honey bee populations are disappearing at an average 31% drop seasonally since 2006. That is twice the rate that commercial beekeepers consider economically sustainable. In 2019 the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) awarded $4 million in grants for pollinator health-related projects.)

The importance of bumble bees

Actually, of the 100 crops that supply 90% of the world’s food, 71 are pollinated by bees.

Bumble bees are an essential part of this, especially for potatoes. Other plants that they pollinate extensively include raspberries, blueberries, cranberries, tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers. And, where would your household garden be without them.

Enter the saviors

In February 2021 a group of 14 students from Albany Law School, aptly named “Bombus Pollinator Association of Law Students” or “BPALS,” filed a petition with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. In conjunction with Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity BPALS sought protection for the bumblebees under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) of 1973.

As of September 2021 the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service added the Franklin’s Bumble Bee (Bombus franklini) found along the West coast to the protection list. 

Still, the dubious distinction as the first bumble bee in the continental
United States to receive protection under the ESA goes to the Rusty-patched Bumble Bee (Bombus affinis), the state bee of Minnesota.

The future of the American Bumble Bee

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service issues 12-month petition findings on whether further action is warranted. That brings us to September 2022. If warranted, the ESA stipulates a 2 year review to make a final decision on listing the bumble bee as protected. Yet, the turn-around time by the USFWS averages 12 years. 

Can the American Bumble Bee make it? Only time will tell. Meanwhile, appreciate seeing them any time that you can.

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