Rusty Patched Bumble Bee

Photo Credit: Dan Mullen, Flickr

Photo Credit: Dan Mullen, Flickr


The Federally endangered rusty patched bumble bee needs our help.

The Rusty patched bumble bee was officially listed on the Federal Endangered Species List on March 21, 2017.

In 2017, there were only 191 expert-confirmed sightings of this endangered bee across the U.S. United States Fish and Wildlife Service projections indicated that the rusty patched bumble bee may become extinct in as soon as 5 years, if measures aren’t taken to protect it and its habitat.  The rusty patched bumble bee is not alone; 1 in 3 bumble bee species are in trouble1.

When we think of declining bee populations, many of us think of honey bees, but actually, honey bees are doing okay, relatively speaking.  Honey bees are a managed bee species, this means humans take care of them like domestic animals (e.g., cattle).  Further, honey bees aren’t supposed to be here.  They are a non-native species, imported from Europe. Rusty patched bumble bees are supposed to be here; they are a native bee species and an essential part of our ecosystem.

Rusty patched bumbles have been pushed to the brink of extinction because of human behavior:  1) through the pesticides we spray on our yards and crops, 2) the introduction of parasites and disease because of human attempts to import and manage bees, 3) the major loss of habitat through human development of land, 4) through climate change which may impact timing of flower bloom and bee emergence/hibernation as well as increase disease exposure2

Why are pollinators, like the endangered rusty patched bumble bee so important?  Pollinators are crucial to the survival of the human species; “they pollinate 70 of the around 100 crop species that feed 90% of the world3.”  Very simply speaking, pollinators ensure that the plants humans eat, and the plants animals eat, that we in turn eat, reproduce.  If the plants humans and animals eat don’t reproduce, humans ultimately will have nothing to eat. 

There are certain foods that require bumble bees for pollination.  Bumble bees have a special ability that honey bees do not.  That is, the ability to “buzz” pollinate plants; without bumble bees, we could lose certain foods altogether like cranberries, blueberries, tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, zucchinis, pumpkins, and eggplants4. 

The rusty patched bumble bee needs a very diverse ecosystem to thrive: native prairie, marshlands and forest to forage; abandoned rodent burrows 1-4 feet underground for nesting; and shallow, undisturbed soil for queens to hibernate in winter.  Its diverse habitat needs, and its interdependence on other species (e.g., rodents) make it incredibly sensitive to ecosystem disruption, caused by human interference5; essentially, the stars must align for its propagation.

According to the USFWS, “The single most important conservation measure for many threatened and endangered species is habitat conservation or restoration6.”

I would argue that, moving forward, habitat preservation is essential and restoration should only be an option used to fix what we have already destroyed.  Attempting to recreate habitat after we have destroyed it or tailor construction activities to reduce interference with foraging, nesting and hibernating are not sufficient solutions.  As mentioned before, we know very little of their habitat needs, so there are most certainly habitat need factors that have been overlooked and thus, will never be able to be recreated or worked around.  Take for example Minnesota's state flower, the showy ladyslipper.  In order to reproduce, its seeds need to interact with a certain fungus in the soil7.  If we didn’t know about this fungus and attempted to propagate the ladyslipper outside of its natural habitat, the flower would not survive. So, what are the unknown factors required for the rusty patched bumble bee to survive?  Does the rusty patched bumble bee also require certain soil fungi or enzymes to reproduce?  Our lack of knowledge underscores the importance of preserving the areas in which the rusty patched bumble bee remains. We know that they are still found in part of Carver County, Minnesota but not in 99.9% of its original range1,5.  We should trust that there is a reason they remain here and preserve what remains of their habitat.

Surprisingly, more Great Plains land has been lost and converted (e.g., urbanized, turned to agricultural land) than Amazon Rainforest8.  This fact points to one of the reasons why we are experiencing species extinction on our continent and emphasizes why species conservation is a task that everyone should be concerned about.  

Don’t we need that land to grow crops to feed our planet and don't we need to make "progress" by developing the land?

Did you know that we don’t need all the farmland we have to feed the world?  We produce enough food to feed 10 billion people and only have to feed 7.6 billion.  The rest is currently going to feed our cars and livestock. This means we could easily convert a large portion of this land back to natural prairie, wetlands, and forest, save the pollinators (and the rest of the ecosystem) and still have enough to eat9.

Did you know that organic agriculture performs as well as chemically based agriculture and actually outperforms chemically based agriculture in drought years?  This means we could convert to an all-organic agricultural system, help our pollinators (and the rest of the ecosystem) and actually have more food than we would if we kept current practices9.

“Progress” is a socially constructed concept, which means that we get to redefine it. So, what if “Progress” didn’t mean development?  What if progress meant something good for Planet Earth and its people?

Do you know why there are so many developments; why cities want to acquire annexed land and develop it? A major revenue generator for municipalities is new development.  When a development proposal is approved, the city assesses the developer a one-time “development impact fee”; it then uses this money to pay for infrastructure in the city (e.g., roads, schools, parks, fire, sewer), effectively trimming the budget by offsetting costs.  After the development is built, the city is also able to increase its tax base by collecting taxes from all of the new property owners.  Developments can also increase existing property values, which in turn, increase the property tax revenue the city receives. This is why there are so many senseless development projects: It’s a win, win, win, for the city10.  But, lose, lose, lose for the surrounding ecosystem and the people who actually enjoy living in a clean, undeveloped, natural environment.  If we want to fix this mess we are in and ensure our survival, cities need to find different ways generate revenue that don’t destroy the environment and turn all of the land into overpopulated suburbs.

Instead of developing, why don't we protect those areas?  For example, why don't we turn those areas into restoration areas for the endangered rusty patched bumble and other members of the ecosystem?  Why don't we restore agricultural land to natural prairie, marshland and forest?  

A restoration area could involve but would not be limited to restoration of prairie, woodland, and marshes; specifically, conversion of agricultural land to prairie, marsh, and woodlands; conversion of any remaining agricultural land from chemically based agriculture to organic agriculture; planting of native prairie, rusty patched bumble bee friendly flowers, and trees wherever possible in public spaces, and encouragement to plant such prairie, flowers and trees in privately owned spaces.  This plan could also involve investigation of and application for government and private funding sources to incentivize prairie, woodland, and marsh restoration, crop conversion, organic agriculture, as well as for planting native prairie, flowers, and trees in publicly and privately owned spaces.

“We have an opportunity for greatness which has never been offered to any civilization, any generation in human history, to act as a generation to do the right thing.  If we fail to act on it, we will become the most vilified generation in human history.” –Dr. Roger Payne, President, Ocean Alliance

We have an opportunity for greatness here, to do the right thing and set an example for the rest of the world.  Please, get involved in helping our planet in any way you can (see Resources page for ideas) and please sign the petition to save the rusty patched bumble bee and its habitat (see Petition page).


1 Evans, E., Smith, T., Horton, A. (2017, 29 November). Minnesota Bumble Bees with a Focus on the Federally Endangered Rusty Patched Bumble Bee. Presented at the Minnesota Association of Environmental Professionals November Seminar, St. Paul, MN.