Metro

The plight of the bumblebee

JENS MEYER/ASSOCIATED PRESS/FILE

Bees, which pollinate about one-third of crops in the United States and account for some $15 billion in revenue for the agricultural industry, have suffered in recent years.

The rusty-patched bumblebee once thrived from Maine to the Midwest, gathering pollen and nectar from flowering plants and providing a natural boost to tomatoes, cranberries, and other vital crops.

Now, the furry insect is on the verge of extinction.

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On Tuesday, in one of the final acts of the Obama administration, the US Fish and Wildlife Service designated the rusty-patched bumblebee an endangered species — the first bee of any kind in the continental United States to receive such status.

“Our top priority is to act quickly to prevent extinction of the rusty-patched bumblebee,” Tom Melius of the Fish and Wildlife Service said in a statement.

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Bees, which pollinate about one-third of crops in the United States and account for some $15 billion in revenue for the agricultural industry, have suffered in recent years. Roughly half of all bee colonies now collapse at the end of each winter, scientists say, double the total of a decade ago.

Since the late 1990s, the rusty-patched bumblebee population has plummeted by 87 percent. Once abundant in 28 states, including Massachusetts, the bees now live in scattered populations in 13 states and one Canadian province.

Officials say the bumblebee population has dropped as a result of the loss of habitat from increasing development, diseases and parasites, pesticides, and climate change, which impacts the flowers they live on.

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“Diseases and parasites brought by nonnative honeybees are acting in interrelated ways to the detriment of bumblebees,” said Mark McCollough, an endangered species specialist with the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Plans to bolster the bumblebees include planting more native flowers, curbing pesticides, and leaving grass and garden plants uncut after the summer to provide habitat for bees through the winter.

“The loss of any species to human actions is a tragedy,” McCollough said.

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