One of Maine’s smallest creatures could soon find itself on the federal endangered species list.

Last week the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed listing the rusty patched bumblebee as endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

Once widespread in the U.S. and Canada, the wild pollinator has experienced a steep decline and is found only in small population pockets in 12 states from the midwest into Maine.

“Twenty years ago, the rusty patched bumblebee was an abundant native pollinator found across a broad geographic range that included 28 states and the District of Columbia, from Connecticut to South Dakota and north into two provinces in Canada,” the federal agency said in a statement last week. “The rusty patched bumblebee is now found only in Illinois, Indiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, Wisconsin — and Ontario, Canada, [with] abundance and distribution of rusty patched bumblebee populations [declining] by an estimated 91 percent since the mid- to late 1990s.”

If granted endangered status, it would mark the first time a bumblebee has made the federal list.

“Pollinators are profoundly important to our environment and to our food supply,” Matthew Shepherd, director of communications for the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, said Monday. “They help provide us with the berries and fruit that we eat.”

The Xerces Society petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2013 to have the rusty patched bumblebee listed as endangered based on the shrinking population.

“We have been studying this bee for many years,” Shepherd said. “About 10 years ago, we started a ‘citizen science’ program with volunteers and asked people to look for the [rusty patched] bumblebee and send in photos.”

In Maine, according to Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife spokesman Mark Latti, for the last two years, more than 160 “citizen scientists have been trained and are documenting the distribution of Maine’s 18 native bumblebee species as part of the state’s Bumble Bee Atlas.

“While some bumblebee species are widespread and apparently secure in Maine, others such as the rusty patched bumblebee have not been documented for a decade or more and are possibly [gone] from the state,” Latti said. “The Maine Bumble Bee Atlas will provide biological data that will allow the [U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service] and other natural resource partners to make informed decisions regarding the conservation and management of the rusty patched bumblebee and other vulnerable pollinators.”

More telling than where people were finding the bumblebee was where they were not seeing them, Shepherd said.

“We gathered a lot of information on the absence of the bees,” he said. “This is a bee on the brink of extinction, and five years from now it could be gone.”

Inclusion as a federal endangered species is the bee’s best chance for survival, Shepherd said.

“If it gets the nod of approval, it will bring a lot of new resources to its protection,” he said. “There would be a recovery plan produced by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife agency that would identify some of the rusty patches critical habitat and areas that could be protected from development.”

Threats to the rusty patched bumblebee, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, include diseases passed from commercial honeybee colonies as well as pesticides, habitat loss and climate change.

Endangered status also could increase people’s awareness of the bumblebee, Shepherd said.

“People might look around and realize maybe they have the [rusty patched] bumblebee in their area,” he said. “They could then decide to not use pesticides or to protect the land they have for the bumblebee.”

The rusty patched bumblebee’s favorite habitat is open prairie land, Shepherd said, but it has also turned up in parks and urban green spaces and in open, flowering areas of Maine.

They also are the chief pollinator of many economically important crops, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“Bumblebees are able to fly in cooler temperatures and lower light levels than many other bees, such as honeybees, making them excellent pollinators for crops like tomatoes, peppers and cranberries,” the federal announcement said. “Even where crops can be self-pollinated, the plant produces more and bigger fruits when pollinated by bumblebees.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will accept public comment on the rusty patched bumblebee endangered species listing through Nov. 21.

“We have put a great deal of time and effort into writing and submitting the petition,” Shepherd said. “This is an excellent step forward, and we are thrilled.”

Comments may be submitted by one of the following methods:

— Electronically: Visit the federal eRulemaking Portal at regulations.gov. In the Search box, enter FWS–R3–ES–2015–0112, which is the docket number for this rulemaking. In the Search panel on the left side of the screen, under the Document Type heading, click on the Proposed Rules link to locate this document. You may submit a comment by clicking on “Comment Now!”

— Submit hard copies by U.S. mail or hand-delivery to Public Comments Processing, Attn: FWS-R3-ES-2015-0112, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Headquarters, MS: BPHC, 5275 Leesburg Pike, Falls Church, VA 22041-3803.

Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.