When you’re a kid spending a lot of time outside—climbing trees, trudging through creeks, lying in open fields—it doesn’t take long to learn the hierocracy of bees. There are the speedy wasps with their dangling legs, to be avoided at all costs; the slightly less threatening (but no more lovely to be stung by) yellow jackets. Horseflies, which in stinging terms might as well be bees, aren’t all that lovely to be around either.
On the more benevolent side of things, even less threatening than the honeybee is the bumblebee: the fat, fuzzy drone that zigs and zags like it’s drunk on nectar. Though I lived in fear of yellow jackets after getting stung by one while climbing an apple tree, a misstep that nearly gave me blood poisoning, I can’t ever remember running from a bumblebee.
It turns out that, aside from being the most teddy bear–like of native bees, bumblebees do some very helpful work as pollinators too. But despite the help bumblebees can offer farmers, an expanding agriculture industry, and development, are crowding out their habitats across the country. With fewer areas blanketed with native plants—such as the purple coneflowers and black-eyed Susans that used to line corn field–adjacent ditches in Iowa—the population declines spurred by habitat loss have led conservation groups to sue the government to add one type of bumblebee to the endangered species list.
The Xerces Society and the Natural Resource Defense Council, the environmental groups that brought the lawsuit against the U.S. Department of the Interior and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, say the rusty patch bumblebee has lost 87 percent of its native range in the Midwest and on the Eastern seaboard.
In 2013, Xerces petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to have the bee listed, but it says the agency never responded—hence the lawsuit. No bees are currently listed as endangered.
Corn and soybeans have all but devoured the prairie that once covered the Midwest, the natural habitat of these bumblebees. But even in the years since corn became king, farming practices far more friendly to bees (rusty patched and otherwise) than today’s agricultural norms have been widely used. While it’s not the same as native purple prairie clover, it used to be fairly common to grow nitrogen-fixing red clover as a cover crop in rotation with corn and soy. Rusty patched bumblebees and other pollinators would probably prefer a field of wildflowers, but when agriculture is introducing expanses of flowers to the landscape, breaking up the monoculture, it provides another source of nectar and pollen and improves the soil.
The introduction of genetically engineered corn and soybeans has wrought habitat changes too. With crops able to tolerate herbicides like glyphosate, farmers have been able to more effectively and more thoroughly kill off any unwanted plants in their fields. Like the monarch butterfly, which has less and less of the milkweed it lays its eggs on because of herbicide use, rusty patched bumblebees are losing out to modern agriculture.
“This once-common bee has nearly disappeared in the past decade and a half,” Sarina Jepsen, endangered species program director for the Xerces Society, said in a statement. “The few remaining populations are isolated and likely to go extinct without protection under the Endangered Species Act.”
Considering that “protection” would likely take the form of introducing more wild landscapes dotted with pink and purple and yellow wildflowers across the Midwest, saving the rusty patched bumblebee would be a beautiful act in a variety of ways.