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Pollinator prose

Floating through meadows with charm,

Buzzing ’round flowers on farms,

Pollination facilitator,

Everyone loves a pollinator,

Until one lands on your arm.

Rusty patched bee. Photo by FWS.
Rusty patched bee. Photo by FWS.

In March it was made official: the rusty patched bumble bee is the first wild bee in the continental U.S. to gain federal protection on the government’s list of endangered species.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) listed the rusty patched bumble bee under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) effective on March 21, 2017. The final rule was published in the Federal Register on Jan. 11, 2017 with an effective date of Feb. 10, 2017. The effective date was subsequently extended to March 21, 2017 by the Trump Administration.

President Donald Trump, though, lifted the hold that had been placed on a plan for federal protections for the bee proposed last fall by the administration of Barack Obama.

“Our top priority is to act quickly to prevent extinction of the rusty patched bumble bee. Listing the bee as endangered will help us mobilize partners and focus resources on finding ways right now to stop the decline,” said Tom Melius, FWS Midwest Regional Director. “The rusty patched bumble bee is among a group of pollinators — including the monarch butterfly — experiencing serious declines across the country. Why is this important? Pollinators are small but mighty parts of the natural mechanism that sustains us and our world. Without them, our forests, parks, meadows and shrublands, and the abundant, vibrant life they support, cannot survive, and our crops require laborious, costly pollination by hand.”

The rusty patched bumble bee was a common sight 20 years ago, but the species is now on the brink of extinction. Rusty patched bumble bee numbers have plummeted by 87%, leaving small, scattered populations, according to FWS.

While bees are clearly important, the listing is a concern for some in agriculture. The widespread habitat for the rusty patched bee (including many parts of Ohio) means a potentially increased regulatory burden on a large part of the country.

“While agriculture greatly values conservation, the ESA creates many challenges for farmers and ranchers and often limits agriculture production. Many farms and ranches used for crop production and raising livestock contain habitat which sustains wildlife, including threatened and endangered species,” said Shiloh Perry with the American Farm Bureau Federation. “Farmers are often restricted from fully utilizing their land due to the ESA’s strict regulations when endangered species or critical habitat are present. These regulations affect not only farmers’ occupations and ability to stay profitable, but families and homesteads as well. Working in agriculture is often more than an occupation; it is a lifestyle and frequently a family endeavor. The increased regulatory burden of the ESA negatively affects rural quality of life and jeopardizes the overall agriculture economy.”

The listing can also lead to litigation.

“The statute allows special interest groups to sue anyone believed to be in violation of the act. Too often radical environmental activists target citizens, frequently farmers and ranchers, who practice positive conservation efforts,” Perry said. “Resulting legal costs disrupt the rural economy, are burdensome to taxpayers and provide no resources for active species conservation and recovery efforts.”

At this point, Ohio State University Extension entomologist Andy Michel said that the implications of listing the rusty patched bumble are still uncertain for Ohio agriculture.

“It’s unclear as to what impact, if any, this has for Ohio ag at this point. Yes, this species can be found in Ohio — there are also other bumble bee species — and yes its numbers are decreasing for reasons that are unknown, although there is a long list of suspects,” Michel said. “Putting the endangered label on it may add protections and regulations against knowingly destroying the bumblebee’s habitat and habitat creation (it is a ground nester). But I think that would be hard to enforce as we can’t expect farmers to walk their fields looking for this particular species.”

Michel said existing regulations probably already address the issue.

“We have guidelines, and the Ohio Department of Agriculture has regulations, for conserving pollinators in agronomic crops and I think all of these guidelines will also work for helping conserve this particular bumble bee species,” Michel said. “If it is like the other bees that visit flowers on field edges we need to be careful with drift, either by spraying or dust releases from seed treatments. So until we get more specific information, we should follow the already suggested guideline to protect all pollinators as best we can.”

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