Investigating the Mystery of One of America’s Most Endangered Bees


The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed that one of those species—the rusty patched bumble bee (Bombus affinis), named for the small, red-brown crescent on its back—receive federal protection as an endangered species.

There are 47 varieties of native bumble bee in the United States and Canada, and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimates that more than a quarter of those species face the threat of extinction. But unlike honeybees—an imported species from Europe whose recent mass deaths have been well publicized and extensively researched—bumble bees receive scant attention. If the federal listing of the rusty patched bumble bee proceeds, however, that may change: It would be the first native bee in the continental United States to be protected under the Endangered Species Act.

The rusty patched bumble bee was once ubiquitous across a large, bat-shaped expanse that stretched from New England south through the Appalachians and into the Midwest, and southeastern Canada. Today, however, only a handful of genetically isolated populations survive in Wisconsin and parts of Minnesota. The Fish and Wildlife Service estimated in its listing proposal that populations have declined by as much as 95 percent since the late 1990s. “There are a few little spots where we know they are,” says USDA research entomologist Dr. James Strange, “but only a really few spots.”

What caused the rusty patched bumble bee to disappear? As with many ecological mysteries, there’s not one easy answer. Urban sprawl and agriculture’s continuing shift from small, diverse farms to vast swaths of single-plant monocrops have fragmented habitat and left fewer hedgerows and native plant blossoms to feed pollinators. Agricultural and garden pesticides can kill or weaken bees. And in the specific case of the rusty patched bumble bee, some scientists point to pathogenic intruders, particularly a fungal parasite that may have grown more virulent thanks to our love of year-round greenhouse tomatoes.


read more:
article: Hannah Nordhaus
photo: Clay Bolt


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