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American bumblebee found in R.I. after more than a decade

The important pollinator has become so rare in some states that the US Fish and Wildlife Service is reviewing a conservation group’s petition to add it to the endangered species list

University of Rhode Island graduate students Casey Johnson, Elizabeth Varkonyi, and Julia Viera led the Rhode Island Bombus Survey to locate 11 species of bumblebees in Rhode Island. They have found six, including the first American bumblebee in more than a decade.
University of Rhode Island graduate students Casey Johnson, Elizabeth Varkonyi, and Julia Viera led the Rhode Island Bombus Survey to locate 11 species of bumblebees in Rhode Island. They have found six, including the first American bumblebee in more than a decade.University of Rhode Island

PROVIDENCE – Rhode Island is buzzing with some good news.

A team from the University of Rhode Island has discovered the first American bumblebee in the state for the first time in more than a decade.

Steve Alm, a professor of entomology at the University of Rhode Island, and graduate students Casey Johnson, Elizabeth Varkonyi, and Julia Viera made the discovery in August, but the location of the single bee is being kept secret to protect it from individuals who may want to eradicate it.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service is currently reviewing a petition to add the bee to the endangered species list.

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“At this point, we have not begun our species status assessment for the American bumblebee,” FWS spokeswoman Georgia Parham said. “Our recent 90-day finding was based on information presented to us by the groups that petitioned us to list the species. The American bumblebee will be added to the Service’s National Listing Workplan.”

She added, “once the species status assessment is completed, we will use that information to evaluate whether to propose the American bumblebee for listing under the Endangered Species Act.”

Once a species is listed, it is afforded the full range of protection under the act, including prohibitions on unauthorized killing, harming, or otherwise taking and restrictions on importing and exporting to prevent trade-related declines, according to FWS.

The 72-page petition was submitted Feb. 1 by the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity and the Bombus Pollinators Association of the Law at Albany Law School in New York.

A graphic illustration of the US Fish and Wildlife Service's petition process.
A graphic illustration of the US Fish and Wildlife Service's petition process.US Fish and Wildlife Service

“This species has declined almost 90 percent,” said CBD staff scientist Jess Tyler. “That was striking to us. How can it be? It was so common across the country. It’s distinctive.”

Tyler said the American bumblebee, and many other insects, are facing threats from pollution, contamination by pesticides, disease spread, and the effects of climate change.

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“It’s no coincidence that pesticides are a huge contributing factor,” he said. “If you look at neonicotinoids – a group of insecticides that have quickly become the most popular insecticides – their rise in popularity really only started in the 1990s and 2000s. We don’t think that’s a coincidence that at the same time these gained popularity, that the American bumblebee declined.”

The highly toxic neonicotinoids are mostly used for agriculture, Tyler said, and “[expose] these bees to a chronic level. It impairs their immune system and makes them more susceptible to disease.”

The Rhode Island Bombus Survey began at URI in 2014. It seeks to identify 11 native species of bumblebees that were common in Rhode Island from 1901 to 1952. They have located six.

There are 46 bumblebee species found in the United States.

Not a single American bumblebee had been found since the survey started in 2014. And according to the petition to list the bee, no American bumblebee has been spotted in Rhode Island since 2009.

Other types of bees, such as the Eastern bumblebee, are holding their own, Alm said. But another, Bombus fervidus, can’t be found often.

“Last year we only found 10 specimens of fervidus, looking all season long,” Alm said.

The decline isn’t only limited to bees. Alm said a study in Germany shows there was a 75 percent decline in flying insects over 25 years.

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Even if the bumblebee is listed, Alm questioned whether fines under the Endangered Species Act could be adequately enforced. Farmers or developers could incur fines up to $13,000 for killing a protected insect, Live Science reports.

“We have to save as many of these insects as we can,” Alm said. “They are very important in pollinating crops and wildflowers.”

Tyler said getting more insects on the endangered list is “one thing we can do to limit the spread of pesticide contamination.”

Tyler said the Center for Biological Diversity partnered with the Bombus Pollinators Association after finding its rejected petition during a Freedom of Information Act request. The 2019 petition was rejected over a “technicality,” Tyler said.

”We called them up. We teamed up and wrote a better petition,” he said. “The FWS agree it’s a good petition. It’s past the first hurdle. They’ll take it to a 12-month peer review, and then conduct their own rigorous analysis to determine the state of the species and within a few years, they’ll propose to list or not.”

Sixteen states have seen declines of greater than 90 percent, which meets the International Union for Conservation’s criteria for critically endangered.

In addition to Rhode Island, the American bumblebee has not been observed in Connecticut, and Vermont since 2009, and Maine since 2010.

The decision to add the bee to the list is expected to face pressure from agriculture and development around the country.

“It will be a fight to get it protected, but you know, myself and people who work for the center, this is what we do,” Tyler said. “The bees are worth protecting. It’s declined so much. I think it’s an indicator species. The changes we’ve made to the environment in the last 20 or 30 years are contributing to the broad insect decline. The American bumblebee is one example we can point to, to show that the way we are doing things, relying on large amounts of insecticide and highly toxic stuff, it can’t go on that way.”

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Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey, and Maine have all lost between 33 to 50 percent of their pasturelands, according to the CBD petition.


Carlos Muñoz can be reached at carlos.munoz@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @ReadCarlos.