"Unreasonable, unlawful, unconscionable": Feds decide not to designate critical habitat for rusty patched bumble bee

This week, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced it would not be designating critical habitat for the endangered rusty patched bumble bee. In the final notice of determination posted in the Federal Register, the agency said the following:

“The best scientific data available indicate that the present or threatened destruction, modification, or curtailment of the rusty patched bumble bee’s habitat or range is not the primary threat to the species. Because habitat for the rusty patched bumble bee is not limiting, and because the bee is considered to be flexible with regard to its habitat use for foraging, nesting, and overwintering, the availability of habitat does not limit the conservation of the rusty patched bumble bee now, nor will it in the future.”

The Fish and Wildlife Service was compelled to make a determination about critical habitat for the bee by July 31 of this year as part of settling a lawsuit with the Natural Resources Defense Council last September. The Endangered Species Act requires the agency to designate critical habitat for endangered species within one year after a species is listed. When the rusty patched bumble bee was listed in 2017, the Fish and Wildlife Service concluded that critical habitat was not determinable. After nearly three years, the agency still had not made a determination; it took the NRDC lawsuit to get the agency to fulfill its legal obligation.

“The Service’s decision is unreasonable, unlawful, and unconscionable,” said Lucas Rhoads, staff attorney for NRDC and co-counsel on the lawsuit. “Nothing about it makes sense.”

The rusty patched bumble bee has disappeared from 87% of its historic range in North America over the past two decades. While bee experts generally agree that habitat loss is likely not the primary driver for this dramatic decline (it’s more likely to be pesticides and pathogens), these same experts are also very clear on the essential role that abundant habitat will play in the bee’s recovery.

“Unfortunately, this decision was based on assumptions about this bee’s biology that were made with insufficient evidence,” the Xerces Society said in a statement, focusing on two key elements of the bee’s life cycle: overwintering habitat and access to floral resources.

“It is possible that there are essential features of overwintering habitat or nesting habitat that are very uncommon, and if they were altered or destroyed, could cause the few remaining populations of the rusty patched bumble bee to go extinct,” said Sarina Jepsen, Director of Endangered Species and Aquatic Programs for Xerces, in separate communication. “Bumble bee queens spend half of their lives overwintering – so it is unfortunate that the Service concluded that this bee is not habitat limited without a better understanding of this part of the bee's life cycle.”

In its ruling, the agency admits, “Little is known about the overwintering habitats of rusty patched bumble bee foundress queens...” It then goes on to base its determination on what is known about bumble bee overwintering behaviors generally and one anecdotal account of a single rusty patched queen observed in Wisconsin.

In addition, Jepsen said, even if the bee is known to forage in a variety of habitats and visit diverse flower species, we don’t know for sure whether floral resources are abundant throughout the rusty patched bumble bee’s range. “In its own Species Status Assessment for this bee, the Service recognized the threat posed by the loss of flowering plants due to the extensive use of the herbicide glyphosate within the rusty patched bumble bee’s range,” she said.

Critical habitat is defined in the Endanger Species Act as “specific geographic areas that contain features essential to the conservation of an endangered or threatened species and that may require special management and protection.” The designation can include areas that are not currently occupied by the species but could be needed for its recovery. According to the Fish and Wildlife Service website, the agency considers the following “physical or biological features needed for life processes” when determining if critical habitat should be designated:

• space for individual and population growth and for normal behavior

• cover or shelter

• food, water, air, light, minerals or other nutritional or physiological requirements

• sites for breeding and rearing offspring

• habitats that are protected from disturbances or are representative of the historical geographical and ecological distributions of a species

While the agency did at least nod to these considerations in its ruling, it also makes a very large assumption in it’s ultimate conclusion: “we expect sufficient habitat to remain available to the species into the future”. This, despite the fact that the Fish and Wildlife Service clearly acknowledges in the same ruling that 99.9% of the native grassland in North America has disappeared since European settlement. Also, in making this assumption, the agency never once addresses the rate or extent of land development or habitat fragmentation in the bumble bee's current or historic ranges.

If this decision by the Fish and Wildlife Service was an isolated act, it might simply turn out to be a disappointing road bump in the recovery of this species. But the ruling is the most recent in a long series of actions by the Trump administration to undermine the Endangered Species Act, increase the use of pesticides, and do away with environmental protections generally. Designating critical habitat would require projects that are initiated by federal agencies, receive federal funding, or are authorized by a federal agency to ensure they won’t disrupt that habitat – exactly the sort of “unnecessary burden” that the Trump administration has consistently sought to do away with.

But this may not be the end of securing critical habitat for the rusty patched bumble bee. It may be possible to challenge the ruling.

“We are exploring our legal options,” said Rhoads. “We will continue fighting to protect the bee and its grassland habitat, which is home to the bee as well as countless other species.”

What do you think? Is this issue of the Bee Report worth sharing with people who are smart, funny and beautiful – just like you?

Share The Bee Report

This is it! This is the film project I've been working on with an outstanding team of people and partners for the past two years: the Bees of Grand Staircase-Escalante! The virtual premiere is Thursday, Sept. 24. Reserve a “seat” by signing up at bit.ly/thebees2020. I'm so thrilled to finally be sharing this experience with all of you! Follow me @bymattkelly on Twitter and Instagram for all the details and news that will flow over the next three weeks. More soon!


Neonicotinoids pose undocumented threats to food webs

(PNAS) "One of the main lessons that emerged from Silent Spring is that we overuse pesticides at our own peril because human and natural environments are unquestionably linked. It is time to revisit these lessons given current use patterns of neonicotinoid insecticides... We contend that the efficient and well-documented transmission of neonicotinoids through tripartite food chains – plant to pest to natural enemy – combined with the diversity of nontarget herbivores on treated plants threatens entire food webs by disrupting arthropod communities and interactions."


Bee breeder loses everything in LNU Lightning Complex fires

(CBS13) It's a hard reality to see what’s left of Caroline Yelle’s Bee farm in ashes. Five hundred of her hives in Vacaville and at another location in Napa Valley all burned. The flames from the LNU Lightning Complex Fires surrounded Yelle’s seven years of work. The fire also destroyed her mentor’s home and four decades of his own legacy that he left to her.


Does city life make bumble bees larger?

(ScienceDaily, Martin-Luther-Universität Halle-Wittenberg) Does urbanization drive bumble bee evolution? According to a new study, bumble bees are larger in cities and, therefore, more productive than their rural counterparts. The research team reports that differences in body size may be caused by the increasingly fragmented habitats in cities.

Even bees argue over where to get dinner

(Arizona State University) There’s a learning behavior called latent inhibition. It screens out irrelevant stimuli, allowing the mind to focus on the most pressing and practical issues. If you’ve ignored emails to get a report in on deadline, you’re familiar with it. Honey bees with high latent inhibition forage at the same trusted spots, day in and day out. Low latent inhibition bees learn new and familiar food locations equally well. What happens in the bee world in a mixed colony? Who wins out?

Study finds honey bee venom rapidly kills aggressive breast cancer cells

(ABC News) Venom from honey bees has been found to rapidly kill aggressive and hard-to-treat breast cancer cells, according to new Australian research. The study also found when the venom's main component was combined with existing chemotherapy drugs, it was extremely efficient at reducing tumor growth in mice.

One More Thing…

Cue the Rocky theme. From Olli Loukola @LoukolaOlli via Twitter: “Training bees with Lego’s.”