The past several years have not been kind to the humble bee.
But perhaps none suffer more than the rusty patched bumble bee, or Bombus affinis, a fuzzy insect with a rust-colored patch on its abdomen. The bee used to be a common sight across the Midwestern United States, but now, the bee struggles to survive in a habitat broken apart by increased farming and commercial development.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is proposing to list the bee as endangered, which would grant it significant protections and hopefully save the bee from extinction.
The rusty patch has seen its population drop by 91 percent since the late 1990s, according to FWS. And the decline could be even worse than that, since many of the populations measured have not been reconfirmed since the early 2000s.
The rusty patch, like all species of bumble bee, plays an important role as a plant pollinator. Without pollinating insects, the entire ecosystem would be thrown out of balance, since many animals depend on pollinated plants as a food source. While plenty of pollinators have been on the decline for years, the rusty patch would be the first bee in the continental US to receive protection under the Endangered Species Act.
The rusty patch used to be commonly found in 31 states as recently as the 1990s, but now its range has shrunk to only a few populations in 12 states and Ontario. According to the proposal issued by FWS, the bee faces dire threats in the form of its increasingly fragmented habitats because of human development where the bees used to thrive. The spread of insecticides and herbicides through ever larger farms physically affect the bees as well kill off the flowers that the bees need to survive. Climate change and diseases also contribute to the bees' decline.
"Endangered Species Act safeguards are now the only way the bumble bee would have a fighting chance for survival," Sarina Jepsen, of the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, told Reuters.
The Xerces Society petitioned the FWS to list the species as endangered back in 2013. The organization, claiming that the government had not responded to the petition, filed a lawsuit against the FWS in 2014, which led to the current proposal.
Two years later, the FWS now takes another important step towards protecting the bee. A public comment period will last until Nov. 21, after which the FWS will finalize its decision to give the bee endangered species protection or revise their initial proposal.
If the bee gains protected status, the government may begin looking into expanding habitats for the bee, planting flowers in an effort to expand and connect the fragmented bee populations. "Critical habitats" for the bee would receive legal protection. There would also be an examination into various insecticides, especially those that contain imidacloprid, which was introduced in the early 1990s. The chemical may be especially damaging to bumble bees, according to the FWS proposal.
The battle to save the 47 varieties of bees native to North America proves to be difficult. Unlike honey bees, most of which are closely monitored in commercial settings, bumble bees are widespread and much harder to track. While it appears that many of these varieties are in decline, the extent of and reasons for their decline are not always fully understood by scientists and conservationists. If the rusty patch bee becomes recognized as endangered, it has the potential to shift focus toward saving other bee populations as well.