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Xerces Society, which helped bring about the listing, explains what happened to the bees, and what we can do to help

COURTESY: RICH HATFIELD, XERCES SOCIETY - The rusty patched bumble bee, seen on this purple flower, has died off at alarming rates due to pesticide use, habitat loss, disease and climate change. In a city obsessed with backyard beekeeping and hyperlocal honey, many bristled at recent news that the first bee species has landed on the U.S. Endangered Species list.

The number of rusty patched bumble bees — an important pollinator of crops in the United States — has shrunk an alarming 87 percent since the 1990s.

The new federal listing — brought to the attention of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service by the Portland-based nonprofit Xerces Society — gives the agency authority to develop and implement a recovery plan to keep the species from going extinct.

So how can we help? And how did this happen?

We sat down with Rich Hatfield, senior conservation biologist for the Xerces Society's endangered species program.

Sustainable Life: Is the bumble bee decline part of colony collapse disorder?

Hatfield: No. CCD is directly related to honey bees (not to be confused with bumble bees) but as with CCD, there's no one thing causing (the decline). It's a whole suite of things we've done to bees — heavy use of toxic insecticides, habitat fragmentation, and facilitating the spread of diseases.

Sustainable Life: How are these diseases spread, exactly? Hatfield: Evidence supports the idea that commercial bumble bees have distributed a virulent pathogen to the wild bees, which led to their initial decline, starting in the '90s. It was probably something already in the environment. But, the commercial bumble bee industry likely brought this pathogen into large breeding facilities, with thousands of colonies. As a result, we ended up with a bunch of commercially reared bees that were resistant to the pathogen — which wild species have little resistance to — acting as carriers, and then they were distributed throughout the country to interact with our wild species.

Sustainable Life: Why do we rely so much on commercial bumble bees?

Hatfield: People like to eat tomatoes in January when tomatoes aren't normally available and have to be grown in greenhouses. Honey bees can't pollinate tomato plants, which benefit from buzz pollination. This requires the pollen-holding part of the plant to be vibrated at a particular frequency. Bumble bees are good at it. Once the industry figured that out, there was a rapid increase in demand and production.

Sustainable Life: What happens if the rusty patch bumble bee population doesn't recover?

Hatfield: This will be troubling, as it will mean that a once very common and broadly distributed animal will have disappeared forever. Our native bumble bees are fantastic crop and wildflower pollinators. One out of three bites of food comes from a plant pollinated by a bee, and the vast majority of our native plants are pollinated by our native bees. Native bees are an insurance policy against the continued decline of the honey bee. If broadly distributed common pollinators are disappearing, then we're going to start losing food, which will drive up costs.

COURTESY: RICH HATFIELD, XERCES SOCIETY - The western bumble bee, seen on this yellow flower, was once common in Portland and along the West Coast, but also has dropped off dramatically. It is not yet listed as endangered. Sustainable Life: Portland is home to a robust beekeeping culture. Is it doing its part to help stop the bee die-off?

Hatfield: There is no question that some of them are — especially those that recognize that honey bees require a lot of habitat and are doing their part to provide that habitat. Others believe that they're helping bees just by having a colony in their backyard. The reality is that keeping non-native honey bees for bee conservation is like having chickens for bird conservation. It doesn't mean people shouldn't be beekeepers. But if people want to practice conservation, creating habitat is the best thing they can do.

Sustainable Life: Is beekeeping in any way incompatible with conservation?

Hatfield: It could be considered a form of conservation for honey bees, but they are a non-native species brought to North America for honey production, and are in no immediate danger of extinction. There are 50,000 mouths to feed in a honey bee colony. If resources already are limited, that just increases competition with our native bees in the landscape. Also, honey bees can spread disease to our wild native bees. The degree of this threat is uncertain, but because our native bees are so important for ecosystem function, we urge folks to exercise the precautionary principle.

Sustainable Life: What should we be doing to help?

Hatfield: Create habitat that will support both honey bees and all 600-plus species of our native bees in Oregon. Plant flowers with no pesticides; create space for them to build a nest. Then we can bring them back.

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