Endangered bee highlights decline of pollinators

News that the first bumble bee in the continental United States had been added to the federal Endangered Species List came as no surprise Tuesday, but was alarming and depressing all the same.

The population of the rusty patched bumble bee has plummeted by an estimated 90 percent in only two decades, shrinking from 28 states in the upper Midwest and Northeast, plus the District of Columbia and two Canadian provinces, to just 13 states and Ontario.

While neighboring Wisconsin and Minnesota have kept pockets of rusty patched bumble bees in the southern and central parts of the states, Michigan no longer appears to have what once was considered a relatively common insect in the state, according to the Xerces Society that sought the federal protection for the species.

The decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the bumble bee — never done lightly — points up the sad decline of many pollinator species in general.

The beloved monarch butterfly now also is under consideration for listing after becoming an increasingly rare sight.

Beekeepers have long reported extreme losses among their domestic hives — colony collapse disorder is the term used to describe the decimation.

Bumble bees in recent years have been produced commercially to, like honeybees, help more efficiently pollinate such crops as blueberries, cranberries and tomatoes. Officials estimate the work done by native pollinators such as the bumble bee translates into almost $3 billion a year in economic value.

Critics, however, say that harnessing bumble bees helped introduce deadly funguses from human-cultivated hives to the wild stock, exacting a terrible toll on the rusty patched bumble bee.

Other factors thought to play a role in the bee’s decline include the destruction of its native grassland habitat, increased pesticide use, global climate change and intensive farming that reduced crop diversity and flowering plants.

It’s one thing to recognize the problem, another to take steps to correct it.

But there is hope. Insects, unlike such species as whooping cranes and giant pandas, can reproduce at much greater numbers, so can more speedily recover under the right conditions.

Domestic honeybee colonies have bounced back from a low point in 2008 to a relatively stable number in the past year, though still short of the high seen in 1989.

If enough steps are taken to provide the proper habitat and protect the rusty patched bumble bee from the various threats that brought it to the brink of extinction, it may be able to regain its place as a pollinator in our world as well.