Endangered Species Act protection sought for Franklin’s bumble bee

by Sarah Phelan, San Francisco Bay Guardian
June 23, 2010

by Eter Schroeder

Franklin's bumble bee by Peter Schroeder.

I’ve been obsessed with bees in general, and bumble bees in particular for some time now. I’m fascinated by the bumble bee’s thick tundra- adapted pelt that allows it to forage for nectar in way colder temperatures than your average sun-loving Italian honey bee. And then there’s the bumble bee’s relatively hardcore social structure, in which only the young bumble bee queens over winter, emerging alone in the spring to start colonies afresh.

I’ve even read that the first generation of a bumble bee queen’s colony can be stunted because the young queen had to do everything herself—gathering pollen and nectar, building the nest, tending to her developing brood—unlike the honey bee queen, which forms a permanent colony and has multiple female workers to help raise the young, clean the hive and gather necessary provisions each day.

But above all, I’m fascinated by the fact that something as small as a bumble bee plays such an important role when it comes to pollinating plants. Experts say that native bumble bee pollinators are important to the reproduction of many native flowering plants and food crops. And in Britain and the Netherlands, researchers have actually noticed a decline in the abundance of certain plants where multiple bee species have also declined. Then there’s the fact that for many crops, such as greenhouse tomatoes, blueberries and cranberries, the buzzier bumble bees are better pollinators than honey bees, and some species are produced commercially for their use in pollination.

So, I’ve been troubled by reports that some native bumble bee species are in decline, and that commercially reared bumble bees, reared on the East Coast and then imported to the West to buzz pollinate hothouse tomatoes, could be the cause.

And now the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation and bumble bee scientist Dr. Robbin Thorp have petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service requesting Endangered Species Act protection for Franklin’s bumble bee.

”This mostly black bumble bee was readily found throughout its range in southern Oregon and northern California in the early 1990s,” stated the Xerces Society in a press release. “Twelve years of surveys conducted by Dr. Robbin Thorp clearly show that this species has declined steadily. The decline has been so severe that only a single Franklin’s bumble bee was observed in 2006 and none since.”

“Over the last 12 years I have watched the populations of this bumble bee decline precipitously,” said Thorp, who is Professor Emeritus at UC Davis “My hope is this species can recover before it is too late.” The Xerces press release notes that the cause of the catastrophic decline of Franklin’s bumble bee is hypothesized to be an escaped exotic disease that may have spread from commercial bumble bee colonies to wild bumble bee populations.

“Research in Dr. Sydney Cameron’s lab at the University of Illinois is underway to test this hypothesis,” the press release notes. “Other threats that may be harming Franklin’s bumble bee populations include habitat loss and degradation, climate change, pesticide use, and invasive plant species. Recognizing the decline of Franklin’s bumble bee and numerous other North American bumble bees, the Xerces Society, Thorp, Defenders of Wildlife and the Natural Resources Defense Council recently petitioned the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service to protect wild bumble bees from the threat of disease by regulating commercial bumble bees.

Specifically, the petition asked the USDA-APHIS to create rules prohibiting the shipment of commercial bumble bees outside of their native ranges and to regulate the interstate transport of commercial bumble bees within their native ranges by requiring permits that show that bumble bees are certified as disease-free prior to movement.

“It is vital that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Act quickly to protect this bumble bee,” said Sarina Jepsen, Endangered Species program director at Xerces. “We hope that an Endangered Species Act listing will encourage the USDA-APHIS to protect wild bumble bees from future threats posed by nonnative, commercial bumble bees.”

“The decline in Franklin’s bumble bee should serve as an alarm that we are starting to lose important pollinators,” said Scott Hoffman Black, Executive Director of The Xerces Society. “We hope that Franklin’s bumble bee will remind us to prevent pollinators across the U.S. from sliding toward extinction.”

Read article at the San Francisco Bay Guardian.