BELFAST, Maine — For the first time, a bumblebee species is slated for protection under the Endangered Species Act, and one of its few remaining strongholds is in Waldo and Knox counties.
The rusty patched bumblebee will officially receive endangered status on Feb. 10, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“Our top priority is to act quickly to prevent extinction of the rusty patched [bumblebee],” Tom Melius, director of the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Midwest region, said in a news release. “Listing the bee as endangered will help us mobilize partners and focus resources on finding ways right now to stop the decline.”
The Fish and Wildlife Service says the species was once common across 28 states but has “experienced a swift and dramatic decline” over the past 20 years. The population plummeted by 87 percent, leaving scattered populations in just 13 states.
In the Northeast, 13 states once had thriving populations of the species. In the past decade, the bee has been identified in just six counties in that part of the country — Waldo and Knox in Maine, Barnstable in Massachusetts, Delaware in Pennsylvania, Anne Arundel in Maryland and Fauquier in Virginia.
Peter Cowin, also known as Maine’s “Bee Whisperer,” said the problem is far-reaching, and the population decline likely will continue and possibly accelerate without quick human intervention.
“As with all pollinators, there are a lot of problems with change in habitat, climate and the use of pesticides,” he said Tuesday.
“The effects of these are multiplying and hitting the populations hard,” he said, adding that hundreds of bee species across the country have been on the decline.
But there are other theories about what’s hitting this particular species of bee so hard, according to Eric Venturini, who studies wild bees and wild bee pollination in agroecosystems at the University of Maine. He also runs Grow Wild Bees, a consulting company that works with clients to plan and plant flora that help pollinators thrive.
While habitat loss, pesticides and other factors have been tied to the decline of bee population in general, there could be other factors at play.
“One of the current theories links the decline of this species to the microsporidian pathogen, Nosema bombi,” Venturini said in an email. “Research has found that this deadly pathogen is more prevalent in declining bumble bee species, than in species that are not declining.”
Tackling the problem is key for a huge segment of Maine’s agriculture industry.
“Maine is the proud home to a rich culture of farming. One of the major agricultural industries in the state, lowbush blueberries, require pollinators if blueberry flowers are to turn into fruit,” Venturini said. “Apple orchards, strawberry patches, squash and pumpkins, all also require pollinators.”
How can people help reverse the trend of bee decline?
“Plant native flowers, even in small plots in urban areas, using a variety that will bloom from spring through fall. Limit or avoid use of pesticides if possible, and always follow label instructions carefully. Foster natural landscapes, and leave grass and garden plants uncut after summer to provide habitat for overwintering bees,” the Fish and Wildlife Service said.
Some bumblebee species can be more prone to the effects of lost habitats and climate change than their honeybee counterparts. Rusty patched bumblebee colonies, for example, rely entirely on the survival of their queen. Each winter, the queen goes into hibernation while every other member of her colony dies off.
In spring, the queen will emerge and start a brand new colony elsewhere. The fact that an entire colony of bees relies on the survival of one individual makes existence tenuous.
Last year, seven species of yellow-faced bees native to the Hawaiian islands received protection under the Endangered Species Act, but next month marks the first time a bumblebee variety will be added to the list, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.
Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter at @nmccrea213.