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Source: Newsday

Conservation group seeks protections for bumblebee species


Posted: March 30, 2016
Originally Published: March 28, 2016

Without federal protection, a bumblebee native to the Northeast may soon disappear from farms and gardens — and the consequences could be dire, a conservation group warns.

Defenders of Wildlife has petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the yellow-banded bumblebee, which has declined sharply in New York and other Northeastern states, under the Endangered Species Act.

“This category of bumblebees is really on the ropes,” said Jay Tutchton, an attorney with the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit. Bumblebees are vital pollinators for many crops, including those grown on Long Island, experts say.

“Bees are actually a very easy species to make the argument for, because they do so much that’s valuable for humanity,” Tutchton said.

While bee populations overall have plummeted nationwide, experts say the yellow-banded bumblebee has been especially hard-hit in the last 10 years. Causes include use of harmful pesticides, diseases ravaging commercial colonies, climate change and loss of habitat to development.

According to a recent state Department of Environmental Conservation report, “There are few records of this species located in [New York] since 2009 ... despite increased survey effort. There is evidence of sharp decline in the population both short-term and long-term.”

Entomologist Daniel Gilrein with the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County said he knows of only one recorded spotting of the yellow-banded bee on Long Island in recent years; in Orient in 2013.

“It’s a very serious decline of this cornerstone population. They are critically needed as pollinators for fruits, vegetables, crops, flowers, and the main culprit seems to be pesticides and climate change,” said Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment based in Farmingdale. “You can get to a point where the species is not able to recover, so right now we’re at the crossroads. We need to stop using these pesticides; we need to allow more areas of open field for a lot of species to recover.”

Big and fuzzy, the yellow-banded bee is native to the Northeast, and used to be easily found east of the Rockies in northern states and southern Canada.

Today, the bee has largely disappeared from the southern reaches of its territory, said Rich Hatfield, senior conservation biologist with the Xerces Society, a nonprofit seeking to protect butterflies, bees and other invertebrates.

He called the bee an “excellent pollinator” of fruits, vegetables and flowers.

“The species can fly when it’s cold and wet out, so it’s out there doing work when the honey bees are staying warm in their hives,” Hatfield said.

In its petition to have the yellow-banded and Western bumblebees listed as endangered species, Defenders of Wildlife cited studies in several areas in the Northeast where bumblebees used to be abundant but are now scarcely found. According to the Fish and Wildlife Service website, other pollinators, including the Monarch butterfly and other bumblebee species, are also under review to be listed under the Endangered Species Act.

“When we’re talking about pollinators, we’re really talking about human food security,” Hatfield said. “Bees provide around one-third of the food we eat, so without bees our nutritious and delicious foods disappear.”

The rapid decline of bee populations and its consequences have been in the public eye for close to a decade, since colony collapse disorder made headlines for the fact that it was cutting down honey bees by the millions.

Fish and Wildlife agreed with many of Defenders of Wildlife claims made in its September filing, and was persuaded in its initial review that commercial agriculture, urbanization, climate change, pesticides and disease have posed serious threats to the yellow-banded bumblebee. The agency is now conducting a more thorough review.

If listed, a federal recovery plan for the species would be developed that could ban activities or practices deemed harmful.