Saving the Rusty-Patched Bumblebee

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rusty-patched bumble beeBumblebees are the gentle giants of the pollinator world, so big and fuzzy and mellow that you just want to pick one up and give it a big hug!

Like other pollinators, bumble bees are in trouble.  According to recent surveys, populations of bumbles have sharply declined since 1997, and none are so rare as the Rusty-Patched Bumblebee.

The Xerces Society has recently filed a petition with the US Fish and Wildlife Service to list the Rusty-Patched Bumble as an endangered species. 

Dr. Robbin Thorp, professor emeritus of the University of California, who is a nationally recognized an expert on bumbles, and coauthor of the petition, says:

“The charismatic and once common rusty-patched bumblebee has suffered severe and widespread declines throughout its range in the eastern United States.  The few scattered recent sighting are encouraging, but the species is in critical need of federal protection.”

While the cause of the decline has not been fully determined, in recent studies performed by the University of Illinois–higher levels of fungal pathogens were found in related bee species, as well as lower levels of genetic diversity.

The leading hypothesis suggests that the fungal pathogens were introduced from Europe by the commercial bumblebee industry in the early 1990’s, then spread to our wild pollinators.  Though this hypothesis is as of yet unproven, the timing, speed, and severity of the decline all support the idea.

In Maine, which sits right in the middle of the bee’s range, the decline of farming likely plays a large role in the loss of pollinators like the Rusty-Patched Bumblebee.  According to Frank Drummond, an insect specialist with the University of Maine (the very same scientist I will have the privilege of studying with in August! read more about that here. )  Drummond says that because of a vanishing agrarian lifestyle, New England is more forested than it was in the past.  In fact, Maine is now the most forested state in the entire U.S.  When Maine was made up of rolling pastures and flowery meadows the landscape was effectively an all you can eat buffet for bees and other pollinators.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service has 1 year to respond to the petition filed by the Xerces Society.  Under the Endangered Species Act, remaining populations of Rusty-Patched Bumbles will be protected from site-specific threats, and it’s habitat can be enhanced.  Government agencies would be required to address the issues facing the bumble, including registration of new pesticides that may be harmful to this species, and the movement of commercial bumbles which might transfer disease to wild pollinators.

Like other bumblebees, the Rusty-Patched is an excellent pollinator of wildflowers, cranberries, and other important crops including plum, apple, alfalfa, and onion seed.  Unlike the honeybee, bumblebees will forage in cooler temperatures and even in mildly inclement weather.  Already listed as endangered in Canada, only 3 have been observed in the wild over the last 10 years.  Once common in fields ranging from Ontario to the southern United States, the Rusty-Patched has disappeared from 85% of it’s historic range.

It is my hope that the government will move to protect this species, and Runamuk will support the effort however we can.  All species of pollinators are integral to the overall working of this planet’s ecosystems, and with pollinator populations in decline, we can not afford to loose even one.

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