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The Plight of the Bumblebee

by Janet Ritz

Editor's note: There is news that the cause of colony collapse disorder for honeybees may have been discovered (a fungal infection). This has not, however, solved the plight of the bumblebee, which is responsible for crop pollination for many aspects of agriculture:

With all the focus on the disappearance of the honeybee, there has been little discussion about the plight of the bumblebee, one of the hardest workers in the wild world of agriculture, despite this warning issued by the National Academy of Sciences October 2006:

Long-term trends for several wild bee species -- especially bumblebees -- as well as some butterflies, bats, and hummingbirds... show population drops.
That focus may now change as word comes from scientists that at least one bumblebee species from the Northwestern region of the United States, Franklin's Bumblebee, may have gone extinct.

This is a serious development. Not only because the loss of any species due to human activity is, in this writer's opinion, unconscionable, but because we depend on this species more than we've taken the time to understand.

According to this newly released National Academy of Sciences report, the bumblebee is one of many pollinators losing their battle to survive because of 'habitat lost to housing developments and intensive agriculture, pesticides, pollution and diseases spilling out of greenhouses using commercial bumblebee hives.'

Like the honeybee, the bumblebee has been hurt by the introduction of a non-native parasite. Many pollinator declines are associated with habitat loss...

It turns out that our native American bumblebee (the honeybee was imported) does more than provide a pleasant bass note to the summer hum we hear outside our window amidst the lawn mowers, sprinklers and our children's laughter. The reality is that our humble bumblebee is one of the hardest workers in the wild, accounting for the pollination that provides food for bears and birds -- and for us -- by pollinating ~fifteen percent of U.S. crops. And that percentage has been growing as farmers turn to the lowly bumblebee to replace the disappearing honeybees.

Bumblebee advocates and the scientists raising the alarm about the disappearance of the Franklin's Bumblebee have begun to lobby congress for research money and are now asking farmers to set aside unused land for flowering plants. These requests, along with the new National Academy report, are vital calls to arms. For Franklin's Bumblebee, which has long added its bass note to the life and livelihood of the Pacific Northwest, it may be too late.

For the humble bumblebees still left, such measures are essential.