The decline of the bumblebee shows how we are wrong about conservation

Ino time of unprecedented species extinction, while seemingly every day brings news of another animal or plant on the brink of population collapse, one of the creatures upon which society depends most is fading without drum or trumpet: the humble neighboring bumblebee. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, 12 out of 50 bumblebee species in North America are listed as at risk, with some declining by nearly 90 percent over the past two decades.

As a passionate beekeeper and environmental journalist, I do not take lightly the place of bees in the world of pollinators. But while there has been a lot of noise for bees in recent years, there has been less angst for bumblebees. While their popular counterpart is making a comeback, several bumblebee species are now threatened with extinction. This contrast of fates says a lot about the different environmental pressures facing the two types of bees, but it also says a lot about our own misconceptions about conservation.

There is no single cause to blame for the decline of these bumblebee species. Like so many other species sliding into non-existence, insects have suffered from an amalgam of habitat loss and degradation, exposure to pesticides – especially the neuro-active insecticides known as of neonicotinoids — climate change and, more recently, contagious diseases.

However, it is not too late to save endangered pollinators. For proof, just look at the example of bees.

When beekeepers began reporting years ago that domesticated bees were dying off in large numbers – a phenomenon now known as colony collapse disorder – it sparked a massive public awareness campaign. And for good reason. Bees serve a vital purpose in our world, and their feats and challenges are well known by this point, including providing one of the most delicious gifts on earth: honey. Even for the casual observer, it is easy to see what is at stake in the fight to save bees. Today, we are constantly alert to indicators of their health – their numbers, their care, their ecology. Every time I mention to someone that I am a beekeeper, I am greeted with such disarming benevolence that it is sometimes shocking.

But bumblebees don’t have such good word of mouth. Maybe it’s because we apparently don’t need anything from them – or them from us, except to be left alone to their fields and flowers.

Except that’s not entirely true.

Bumblebees offer us a bounty. They are responsible for doing the majority of pollinate for potatoes, one of the most widely available foods in the world. Insects are also important pollinators of raspberries, blueberries, cranberries, tomatoes, eggplants and peppers. And let’s not forget the garden of the house, a delight for bumblebees, with their preference for comfrey, lavender and honeysuckle. The list could go on even longer. The 4,000 species of wild bees remain “understudied, undervalued and ignored,” Center for Biological Diversity scientist Jess Tyler told me in an email. Yet we depend on them to pollinate wild plants around the world. (Other little-known pollinators — bats, moths, beetles, and native bees and wasps around the world — are also essential workers in our food systems and ecologies. There probably wouldn’t be tequila without it. the few species of bats who, at dusk, visit the agave plants.)

But in many ways, all the talk about what bees can do for we misses the point. I believe there needs to be space for non-transactional relationships between humans and the natural world – an idea that is at the heart of endangered species law. We must be willing to protect a species for its own sake, for no other reason than to conserve as much of the world’s biodiversity as we can muster.

And if we’re going to be completely honest about it, we don’t even know what many creatures in the world can offer us, and that’s okay. We merge with the forces of nature when we think animal A must provide us with something B; we may be missing a whole alphabet between the two.

I believe there needs to be space for non-transactional relationships between humans and the natural world – an idea that is at the heart of endangered species law.

To this end, it is imperative that more research and funding be devoted to understanding what can be done about species decline, especially those driven by disease and pesticide exposure. Already, there are encouraging signs. Recent research shows decrease in the use of pesticides attracts more wild bees, resulting in higher yields of watermelon. And the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act signed into law by President Joe Biden last November includes funding to be set aside for roadside pollinators.

However, the most critical step in protecting endangered bumblebee species will be placing them on the endangered species list. Last February, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Bombus Pollinator Association of Law Students of Albany Law School filed a petition do just that for the American Bumblebee, Bombus pensylvanicus. In September, the US Fish and Wildlife Service announced a one-year status assessment for the species. Unfortunately, however, the Fish and Wildlife Service is often behind schedule in listing species; a petition filed in 2015 to list western bumblebee is still classified as “under review” six years later.

“Whether a species like the American bumblebee or the western bumblebee or the monarch butterfly is protected depends on the will and courage of the government to take bold action to fight species extinction,” Tyler said.

If bumblebee populations continue to decline, most certainly we will suffer. The bee may get all the glory, but the bumblebee deserves our fight.


Carly Nairn is a beekeeper and freelance environmental journalist.

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