FWS proposes listing bumble bee as endangered

By Stephen Davies

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WASHINGTON, Sept. 21, 2016 - The rusty patched bumble bee is one step closer to becoming the first bee in the continental United States to be protected under the Endangered Species Act.

Its range has shrunk by 92 percent since the 1990s, a major reason that the Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing to list it as endangered. The service's proposed listing rule was issued today and will be published in the Federal Register tomorrow.

The Xerces Society, which petitioned FWS to list the species in 2013, said the bee “is not only an important pollinator of prairie wildflowers, but also of cranberries, blueberries, apples, alfalfa and numerous other crops.”

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But the bee's current distribution, which included 31 states as recently as the 1990s, “is limited to just one to a few populations in each of 12 states and Ontario,” FWS said in its proposal. The number of populations has declined by 91 percent, from 845 in the 1990s to 69 currently, the service said.

FWS could not point to one reason for the bee's decline.

“Many of the existing populations continue to face the effects of past and ongoing stressors, including pathogens, pesticides, habitat loss and degradation, small population dynamics, and climate change,” FWS said.

“The pesticides with greatest effects on bumble bees are insecticides and herbicides,” FWS continued. “Insecticides are specifically designed to directly kill insects, including bumble bees, and herbicides reduce available floral resources, thus indirectly affecting bumble bees.”

FWS added that “although the overall toxicity of pesticides to rusty patched or other bumble bees is unknown, pesticides have been documented to have both lethal and sublethal effects (for example, reduced or no male production, reduced or no egg hatch, and reduced queen production and longevity) on bumble bees.”

Neonicotinoids “have been strongly implicated as the cause of the decline of bees in general and specifically for rusty patched bumble bees, due to the contemporaneous introduction of neonicotinoid use and the precipitous decline of the species,” FWS said.

One of those neonics, imidacloprid, “became widely used in the United States starting in the early 1990s, and clothianidin and thiamethoxam entered the commercial market beginning in the early 2000s. The use of neonicotinoids rapidly increased as seed-applied products were introduced in field crops, marking a shift toward arge-scale, preemptive insecticide use.”

Most studies on the effects of neonics on bees have been conducted using the European honey bee, but bumble bees “may be more vulnerable to pesticide exposure for several reasons,” FWS said.

Among those reasons: “They are more susceptible to pesticides applied early in the year, because for one month the entire bumble bee population depends on the success of the queens to forage and establish new colonies, and bumble bees forage earlier in the morning and later in the evening than honey bees, (making them) susceptible to pesticide applications that are done in the early morning or evening to avoid effects to honey bees.”

CropLife America said its members recognize the vital role all pollinators play in the support of agricultural production. Research and field studies have consistently found no unreasonable adverse effects on pollinator populations when pesticides are applied according to label directions. The crop protection industry promotes sound stewardship practices in crop protection product usage, and we will continue to work with growers, beekeepers, regulators and other stakeholders to support bee health. Once the official register notice prepared by the Fish and Wildlife Service is released, we will review and consult with our member companies. 

The service also noted the “suggestion” that a fungus responsible for the collapse in populations of commercially bred western bumble bees in the 1980s might have “spilled over” and affected wild bumble bee populations.

“Patterns of losses observed, however, cannot be completely explained by exposure” to the fungus, FWS said.

An FWS proposal to extend ESA protection to seven Hawaiian bees is pending. 

The Xerces Society petitioned to list the bumble bee in 2013, later suing to force FWS to issue a 90-day finding. The proposed listing will kick off a 60-day comment period, and FWS will likely make a final decision in September 2017.

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