The Bee That Breaks Your Heart

Insects are hard-pressed to get protection as endangered species. Can one fuzzy anomaly beat the odds?

The notorious RPB: the rusty patched bumble bee. (Clay Bolt | www.claybolt.com)
smithsonian.com

Update, January 10, 2017: On Tuesday, the rusty-patched bumblebee was declared officially endangered, making it the first bee species to earn that protected status in the continental U.S.

The first time Clay Bolt saw the rusty patched bumblebee was in the invertebrate collection at Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The nature photographer was being shown around the collection by a park entomologist, who led him to a pinned specimen of Bombus affinis, no bigger than the tip of your thumb. The bee looked similar to others Bolt had seen as part of his project to photograph native bees, except for an amber-colored patch on its second abdominal section. Yet he was immediately drawn to its plight.

This fuzzy little species, which previously spanned 27 states and parts of Canada, was once an important pollinator of apple orchards and other crops. But since the 1990s, the bee’s population had declined by a steep 87 percent. Despite several attempts to locate it, the bee had not been spotted in the park for years, said the entomologist. Bolt's thoughts went to the stuffed passenger pigeon displayed in the same hall—a species that once numbered in the billions, but went extinct in the early 20th century due to overhunting and habitat loss.

“I saw the pigeon and I knew if I didn’t use my skills to bring attention to that bee it soon would only be seen as a specimen in a collection,” says Bolt. “It broke my heart.”

Bolt saw in the rusty patched a bridge to other species: Protect this bee, and it might be possible to protect other key pollinators. After his encounter, he spent the next two years contacting researchers to help him chase down the RPB across several states to create a 20-minute short documentary film called A Ghost in the Making: Searching for the Rusty-Patched Bumblebee. Clay and Day’s Edge Productions pulled out all the stops, using drones, slow motion cameras and swelling music to show the beauty of the little bee and the challenges it faces. Released last April, the film has already been covered widely by the media and won environmental accolades.

As if being the star of its own film wasn’t enough, in late September, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officially proposed the rusty patched for listing under the Endangered Species Act. After a public comment period that will run until November 21, the agency will make a decision whether or not to federally protect the bee. If it does gain protection, it will be a significant moment for bees everywhere: the rusty-patched would be the first bee in the lower 48 states protected by the ESA (seven species of yellow-faced bees endemic to Hawaii were just listed last month).

Clearly, the rusty patched is not the only bee suffering sharp declines. Thanks to the spread of disease, pesticides and the mysterious phenomenon of colony collapse disorder, bee populations have been devastated around the world, with 42 percent of commercial beehives in the U.S. decimated by the disorder in 2015. A United Nations report finds that in many areas, up to 40 percent of wild bee species are at risk of extinction, meaning the wild plants and animals that depends on them are also at risk. And yet no other continental species have gotten both an ESA nomination and a film made about them. 

So what makes the rusty patched so special?

Who says bees aren't cute? (USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab)

Ostensibly, national conservation decisions are based on scientific research. In that realm, Bombus affinis has a big advantage: geography. Bumble bee surveys over the last 100 years in the eastern U.S. and Midwest have documented the abundance of the rusty patched, giving researchers strong baseline population numbers to show how precipitous its decline has been since the late 1990s. Other endangered bumble bees with restricted ranges west of the Rockies and in Alaska have not been surveyed as frequently, making it harder to prove just how much their numbers are dwindling.

In 2007, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) reached out to a conservation biologist named Rich Hatfield to assess the risk of extinction for North America’s bumble bees. Hatfield works with the Xerces Society, a group that works to protect pollinators. The information he collected, along with previous surveys, led the IUCN to designate B. affinis as critically endangered, its highest level of concern, on its Red List of endangered species worldwide. "The reason we chose to focus on the rusty patched is largely because it was a widely distributed species with dramatic declines,” says Hatfield. “We believed it was on the verge of extinction without protection.”

Being listed on the IUCN Red List, however, is only the first step toward getting protection. In the United States, before a species gets designation of critical habitat and a recovery plan, it must also be listed under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. So in January 2013, Hatfield and the Xerxes society put together the complex documentation needed to petition the U.S. government for listing under the ESA. But getting the bee listed, they knew, would be a long shot. That's because, when it comes to getting endangered species protection, being an insect puts you at a severe disadvantage.

Bugs are the subject of far less research than their backbone-d peers, in part because they’re objectively harder to research—they're small, flighty, and often hard to find. As Hatfield puts it: “It’s easier to count polar bears than it is bees.” According to a 2011 study in Conservation Letters, 90 to 95 percent of invertebrates that the IUCN lists as endangered in North America are not protected under the Endangered Species Act. The study looked at 207 North American insects on the IUCN Red List to find that 168 were not recognized by the Act. Eight of the 10 insects listed as critically endangered were also not protected.

“If you look at statistics they suggest Fish and Wildlife is not paying as much attention to invertebrates as other species,” says Hatfield. He points out that, out of the 700 animals on the U.S. Endangered Species List, just 76 are insects—despite the fact that invertebrates make up about 90 percent of biodiversity.

But it isn't just that insects are harder to study. It's also that bugs simply don’t speak to us the way that cute sea otters and majestic bald eagles do. “The challenge insects face is that they are cold and creepy, and some are hard to look at,” says Bolt. “People talk a lot about charismatic megafauna, like bears or wolves. They are big like us, and it’s easy for us to relate to big things. When it comes to insects, we play up their alien characteristics.” 

Studies have found that scientists, like the rest of us, would rather study cute mammals—and funding agencies would rather give grants to research that gets public attention. A recent paper in the journal Facets by Michael Donaldson, a research fellow at Ottawa’s Carleton University, examined how many academic papers had been written about each of the more than 10,000 animal species listed on the IUCN Red List. He concluded that conservation science has a bias against endangered invertebrates; the majority of invertebrates had no studies or just one or two, compared to dozens or even hundreds for mammals.

“Across the board we found the cute and cuddly species had the most research on them, and across the board invertebrates were left behind,” says Donaldson. “It’s a problem and in a way has trickle-down effects. If we’re only funding studies of charismatic vertebrates, we’re not learning as much about other species that have important functions in the ecosystem and are important to humans as well.” He points out that once a species hits a critical mass of studies, funding tends to snowball as more researchers begin asking more novel questions.

For bumble bee conservation, he says, making the insects feel relevant to people has been a valuable strategy to improve visibility and funding. That generally means emphasizing their importance to commercial crops like fruits, vegetables, seeds and oil crops that humans depend on. “We can get the public more engaged and behind the listing of invertebrates and bumble bees if people [understand] the fact that an animal has a function for humans,” he says.

There’s another consequence of having a lack of basic research on endangered insects. It means we don’t know exactly what's causing their declines—and if we don’t know the cause, we can’t come up with a recovery plan. Bees in particular have been the victims of a complex confluence of culprits, including the effects of climate change and neonicotinoid pesticides, which have been linked to honey bee die offs in the U.S. and Europe. But the fact that some bumble bee species are crashing while others are still flourishing suggests that pesticides may not be the primary driver of bumble bee decline.

For the rusty-patched and other declining bees in its sub-genus, some of those causes are becoming more clear. A recent PNAS study published by Sydney Cameron from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign traces the collapse of these species to the introduction of commercial bumble bee pollination in the U.S. in the 1990s. It seems that pathogens that plagued commercial bees spread easily to wild bees as well: several outbreaks of the parasite Nosema bombi that decimated commercial bee stocks correspond to population declines in wild species of bees. Looking at museum samples, Cameron and her colleagues determined that Nosema levels in wild bumblebees were much lower before commercial bees came on the scene.

It’s possible that after a period of precipitous decline, bumble bee populations may develop a resistance and recover on their own. Or, they could keep declining into oblivion. The problem is, without more research, it’s hard to say. And without stronger scientific evidence, it’s unlikely the USDA and other government agencies will take steps to regulate commercial bumblebees if they prove to be the problem. “All I can tell you is this finding is still correlational,” says Cameron, who is currently seeking funding for a research proposal to compare the immune genes and behavior of infected and healthy species.

The rusty-patched might have the scientific evidence on its side—but does it have the charisma? (Clay Bolt | www.claybolt.com)

One of the best places to see the rusty patched bumble bee in action is Curtis Prairie at the University of Wisconsin at Madison’s Arboretum. Begun under the direction of famed conservationist Aldo Leopold, this 60-acre prairie is one of the bee’s last remaining strongholds. When I visit in late September, the final flush of purple New England aster and half a dozen goldenrod species are still covered in male bumble bees. The vast majority aere common eastern bumble bees, which will live out their final days until the first freeze kills them off. But if you look long enough, there’s still a chance you’ll spy a straggling Bombus affinis drone. 

According to Susan Carpenter, the native plant gardener at the Arboretum and de facto rusty patched monitor, the Arboretum didn’t even know it had populations of the rusty patched until 2011. That’s when a California professor sent them photos he’d taken of the bee behind their visitor’s center. Since then, Carpenter has surveyed the species population and worked with researchers studying the bee; when Bolt reached out to her during the planning stages for his film, she was eager to help. Bolt ended up filming a large chunk of A Ghost in the Making at the Arboretum.

Scientific interest seems to be increasing since the film's release. Earlier this month, researchers interested in the bee met in Madison to discuss the next steps in protecting the rusty patched. An online petition sponsored by the Xerxes Society to support the listing of the rusty patched has gathered over 128,000 signatures since July, with one supporter writing: “Although an avid birder in retirement, the bumble bee has captured part of my heart too. I always thought there was only one bumble bee and now I realize how many different species there really are.” Carpenter says she’s also noticed a small uptick in visitor interest, and recently another photographer reached out wanting to look for bees (unfortunately, the bees had ceased most of their activity the month before).

Still, getting the public to form the same kind of emotional attachment with an insect as they have with the polar bear or bald eagle is a tall order. “Working in conservation can be depressing at times, especially working with insects—the chance of making a big difference is slim,” says Bolt. “Most of the time people are unable to move the dial, even a little bit.” But he believes it is worth the effort. His film has already helped people create a meaningful connection with a bee most of them will never see. For him, bringing a little artistry and passion to the science might be a way to create environmental change. 

“Since I’m not a scientist, I’m not afraid to anthropomorphize insects,” says Bolt. “I’m not afraid to talk about them from the heart."

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About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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