(Beyond Pesticides, January 12, 2017) Yesterday marked a monumental event in the fight against pollinator declines, as the rusty patched bumblebee became the first bee species to officially be declared endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). According to FWS, endangered species designations are made when a species is “in danger of becoming extinct throughout all or a portion of their range.” Tom Melius, Service Midwest Regional Director for FWS, stated in a press release that, when it comes to this determination, “[FWS’s] top priority is to act quickly to prevent extinction of the rusty patched bumble bee. Listing the bee as endangered will help [the agency] mobilize partners and focus resources on finding ways right now to stop the decline.” Listed yesterday in the Federal Register, the ruling will go into effect February 10, 2017. This is a victory for environmental groups who have fought to protect the rusty patched bumble bee from widespread threats, such as habitat loss and pesticide use.
According to FWS, the rusty patched bumble bee was once widespread across the United States and parts of Canada, but declined dramatically in the 1990s. Since then, their populations have dwindled and their overall decline is estimated at 91 percent. In its initial assessment, FWS acknowledged that the bumble bee populations considered for this listing have not been reconfirmed since the early 2000s, meaning that currently there may be even less of the species left. Threats to the rusty patched bumble bee include diseases introduced by commercial bumble bees that are not free of pathogens and are released near wild populations. Climate change plays a part, along with habitat loss, from industrial agriculture and development, that decreases wild lands. There is also an overwhelming amount of research demonstrating that neonicotinoid insecticides, working either individually or synergistically, play a critical role in the ongoing decline of bees and other pollinators.
In FWS’s press release on the listing, Mr. Melius spoke to the species importance, stating that, “The rusty patched bumble bee is among a group of pollinators – including the monarch butterfly – experiencing serious declines across the country. 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.”
A class of pesticides known as neonicotinoids have been linked as a key contributor to pollinator decline, affecting the central nervous system of insects, resulting in paralysis and eventual death. These pesticides have consistently been implicated not only through immediate bee deaths, but also through sublethal effects that causes changes in bee reproductive, navigation, and foraging function. Pesticide exposure can impair both detoxification mechanisms and immune responses, rendering bees more susceptible to viruses, parasites, and other diseases, and leading to devastating bee losses.
In 2015, a study coauthored by Christopher Connolly, Ph.D., University of Dundee, found that bumble bees exposed to field-relevant levels (2.1 parts per billion) of the neonicotinoid insecticide clothianidin suffer poor navigation and foraging skills. Clothianidin exhibits an acute effect on the bumble bee’s brain, breaking down the mitochondria in its brain cells. At the time, Dr. Connolly stated, “Our research demonstrates beyond doubt that the level of neonicotinoids generally accepted as the average level present in the wild causes brain dysfunction and colonies to perform poorly when consumed by bumble bees.”
In another study, Seed coating with a neonicotinoid insecticide negatively affects wild bees, Swedish scientists reported that wild bees and bumble bees foraging in crops treated with a commonly used insecticide seed coating, a combination of the neonicotinoid clothianidin and the non-systemic pyrethroid Î²-cyfluthrin, are less likely to reproduce when compared to bees in untreated fields, and that bumble bee colonies in treated fields gain less weight. Additionally, fewer wild bees and bumble bees are found in treated fields than in untreated ones.
While it is a victory that FWS has listed the rusty patched bumble bee as an endangered species, other agencies continue to lag behind when it comes to addressing the threat of pesticides to pollinators. In March 2016, a U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report concluded that U.S. regulatory agencies are falling short in addressing the multiple threats contributing to declining pollinators. The GAO report recommends that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) increase the monitoring of wild, native bees, while U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) efforts thus far on pesticide restrictions (label amendments and restrictions) have been limited and accomplished little to change pesticide exposure patterns to pollinators. GAO identified the need for EPA to develop a plan to assess pesticide risks to a range of bee species beyond honey bees, as current EPA evaluations only use honey bees as a surrogate for wild bee species. Further, the report finds that the impact from exposure to chemical mixtures also needs to be investigated.
Similarly, in February 2016, a United Nation’s assessment of pollinators and the global food supply warned that many species of wild bees, butterflies, and other pollinators are on a dangerous path toward extinction, further threatening the food supply if the human-made causes of these declines are not halted. The assessment found that an estimated sixteen percent of vertebrate pollinators are threatened with global extinction.
For these reasons and many others, Beyond Pesticides works to promote the widespread transition of conventional farmland to organic production. Organic law requires farmers to foster soil health, and create a strategy to deal with pest populations before they become a problem. Because of these factors, many certified organic farms do not need to use organic-compatible pesticides because their required organic systems plan practices increase plant health and pest and disease resiliency through an increased diversity of pest predators.
With one in three bites of food reliant on bees, other insects, and birds for pollination, the decline in pollinators due to pesticides, and other human-made causes, demands immediate action. For more on this and what you can do to protect pollinators, visit Beyond Pesticides’ BEE Protective webpage.
For further information about the decline of the rusty patched bumble bee, you can watch A Ghost in the Making, a short film about the species disappearance.
All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.