Update, March 22, 2017: On Tuesday, after a month-long delay, the rusty-patched bumblebee became the first bumblebee to be officially listed under the Endangered Species Act.
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?
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.”