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Bees are in trouble

This is a guest post by Sarina Jepsen, Endangered Species Program Director for the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation and Deputy Chair of the IUCN Bumblebee Specialist Group

It seems like every time I open my email or turn on the radio, I find the message: Save the honey bee – it’s an important pollinator and it’s in trouble. As someone who has spent a number of years working on the conservation of some of the not-so-charismatic (albeit extremely important) minifauna, I can’t help but feel a mix of emotion – while I am glad that the mainstream conservation community is recognizing the importance of bees and the perils of compounds like neonicotinoid pesticides, these efforts seem misguided.

I used to keep honey bees—and even wrangle swarms—and I have to admit that they make really charming pets. And, although there is little evidence that neonicotinoid pesticides are solely responsible for the recent losses that beekeepers have reported, the European Union has successfully used the honey bee (Apis mellifera) as a poster child to restrict the use of these extremely toxic and persistent chemicals. This is a welcome policy change that has not yet occurred in the US. That said, the honey bee was introduced from Europe into North America in the 1600s, and has since been wildly successful, in a manner similar to domesticated poultry, sheep, and cattle.  Although the honey bee industry has been facing significant challenges in recent decades, rarely do problems with other non-native farm animals garner the attention of conservationists working to protect wild places and the animals and plants that need them. Furthermore, managed and feral honey bees remain extraordinarily abundant and are not in any danger of extinction. While honey bees undoubtedly play a role in pollinating crops and wildflowers, they also compete with the thousands of species of native bees that we have in North America, and some recent research has even shown that honey bees transfer viruses and other pathogens to native bees.

Although most of our native bee fauna has not been studied well enough to know which species are endangered and which are stable, we do know that a number of formerly common bumble bees are highly imperiled – three species may already be extinct and a number of additional bumble bees are on the verge of extinction. Exotic diseases from commercial bumble bees are likely playing a role in the decline of at least some species, such as the rusty patched bumble bee (Bombus affinis), a species native to the Upper Midwest and East Coast that has disappeared from 87% of its historic range in the recent past. Habitat loss, pesticides, climate change, and reduced genetic diversity are also likely playing a role in the decline of many of our native bumble bees.

If, as conservationists, we care about preserving the critical ecosystem service of pollination, which is integral to the base of the food chain, then let’s focus on the conservation of our diverse native bee fauna that has evolved within North American ecosystems. If our goal is to protect endangered bees, then let’s lend some support to defending the many bumble bees that are highly imperiled and desperately need champions, and encourage research efforts to determine the conservation status of many of our other native bee species. If, on the other hand, our goal is to use bees as a tool to get much-needed pesticide reform, then let’s remember that there is ample evidence that neonicotinoids are also really harmful to bumble bees, and that many native bee species may be much more sensitive to the effects of these pesticides than honey bees because of their different life spans, biology, and ecology. We should be asking the EPA not only to restrict the use of neonicotinoids, but also to revise their entire pesticide approval process by creating one that actually considers native bees – in addition to honey bees.

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