Rusty Patched Bumble Bee (Bombus affinis)
Photocredit: Johanna James-Heinz
Identification, provided by US Fish and Wildlife Service:
“All rusty patched bumble bees have entirely black heads, but… workers and males have a rusty reddish patch centrally located on the back… second abdominal segment.”
In 2007, the Xerces Society, an organization dedicated to invertebrate conservation, initiated a status review of three species of bumble bee: the rusty patched bumble bee, the yellow banded bumble bee, and the western bumble bee. This effort recorded the reduction in population of these species as well as factors that contribute to the decrease in their numbers. The Xerces Society mobilized the general public to participate in their research through the bumble bee citizen science project, which educated everyday folks and asked them to submit observations nationwide of these particular pollinators. The response was substantial, and in 2013, the project evolved into the Bumble Bee Watch program boasting of more than 10,000 users and more than 15,000 submissions throughout North America. Despite this outpouring of interest and concern, the data collected through these efforts is discouraging if not daunting. The rusty patched bumble bee, a once common and widespread pollinator, has declined at an alarming rate, “from 9/10ths of its range,” according to Rich Hatfield, Senior Conservation Biologist of the Endangered Species Program.
In the same year that the Bumble Bee Watch program went into effect, the Xerces Society began petitioning the US Fish and Wildlife Service to officially classify the rusty patched bumble bee as an endangered species in accordance with the Endangered Species Act. This fall, three years later, the US Fish and Wildlife Service announced its formal proposal to do so. If the listing is approved, this species must be considered in order for future federal regulation to be passed, such as new pesticide registration. Pesticide and insecticide use has been identified as one of the primary threats to this species, contributing to its precipitous decline. Additional factors include habitat loss and reduced crop diversity in farming since these bees require flowering plants to sustain them throughout the rather long lifecycle of a colony, as well as undisturbed ground for overwintering. Climate instability and GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms) are also being researched for their potentially damaging impacts.
According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, “rusty patched bumble bees contribute to our food security and the healthy functioning of our ecosystems. Bumble bees are keystone species in most ecosystems, necessary not only for native wildflower reproduction, but also for creating seeds and fruits that feed wildlife as diverse as songbirds and grizzly bears.” Moreover, its administration suggests that “the economic value of pollination services provided by native insects (mostly bees) is estimated at $3 billion per year,” and among bees, bumble bees are some of the most effective pollinators due to the high vibration of their movements. Historically, the rusty patched bumble bee served this function within a “range [that] included 28 states, the District of Columbia and 2 provinces in Canada. Since 2000, this bumble bee has been reported from only 12 states and 1 province.” Efforts are underway throughout these regions and beyond to raise awareness of the importance of pollinators specifically as well as that of sustainability and biodiversity in general. Another such coalition is the North American Pollinator Protection Campaign, which the US Fish and Wildlife Service names a “natural collaborator” with a mutual mission to their own and others, like the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service. Organizations such as these encourage landowners to grow native, flowering plants and preserve natural landscape areas which are not subject to mowing, tilling, or other disturbances. Even small container gardening on a porch can make a difference.