Blue Ridge Country - March/April 2018 - 14
Protecting the Pollinators
The listing of the first bumblebee as an endangered species has experts buzzing.
by Nancy Henderson
In the mid-1990s, a California entomologist and pollinator
specialist at U.C.-Davis noted that two species of bumblebees on the west coast had basically vanished. So he
asked his counterparts in the eastern U.S. if they'd seen
any similar declines.
"That's when it appeared that the rusty-patched
bumblebee had also disappeared from much of the
landscape," says Rich Hatfield, senior conservation biologist in the endangered species program and head of
bumblebee conservation efforts at the Xerces Society.
Originally one of the most common bumblebees in
the Blue Ridge area-they once lived in 28 states-the
rusty-patched was, in fact, gone from more than 90 percent of its range and was now found in just three Midwestern states.
"There have been two sightings since the 1990s in
the state of Virginia," says Hatfield. "And those have really been the only observations anywhere [in the Southeast] for the last 20 years."
Like other conservation problems, says Hatfield, "It
isn't like a murder or some crime where there's a single
cause that led to this decline." But the Xerces Society
and other conservation groups point to the emergence
of greenhouse tomatoes and the commercial bumblebee
industry two decades ago as a primary reason. It is believed that the rusty-patched, along with its California
cousins, is uniquely susceptible to a fungus that spread
across the country during this process.
"Of course, when you add the fact that we have significant habitat loss throughout much of North America, on top of an increase in use of pretty toxic insecticides over the same time period," says Hatfield, "you get
the sort of soup of factors that just lead to a case that
this bumblebee could not overcome."
In 2017, the rusty-patched became the first bee of
any kind (not just bumblebees) in the lower 48 states to
be added to the federal Endangered Species List.
Although the recent honeybee decline has drawn far
more public attention, the bumblebee plays an equally
important role in the cultivation of certain fruits and