BuzzFeed: Why the Big Buzz Over a Little Bee?

Exploring “endangered” vs. “threatened” with the elusive Franklin’s bumble bee

By: Amanda Smith, USFWS Columbia Pacific Northwest Region

A large, fuzzy bumble bee hovers in front of a purple flowering plant
Photo: Franklin’s bumble bee on lupine, Credit: Brenden White/USFWS

This week, the world is abuzz with big news about a little insect. The Franklin’s bumble bee (Bombus franklini), not seen since 2006, has been listed as an endangered species by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). We often hear the terms “endangered” and “threatened” and know that they are important when it comes to protecting America’s flora and fauna. But there is more to know about the difference between endangered and threatened, and there are some important reasons the Franklin’s bumble bee — one of our critical pollinators, responsible for much of what we consume — was listed as one instead of the other. There are also good reasons to “bee” hopeful (okay, last bee pun, we promise!) about its future. Here is what you need to know about a newly listed and very elusive bumble bee.

In 1973, Congress, under President Nixon, passed the Endangered Species Act (ESA) to recognize that our rich natural heritage is of “esthetic, ecological, educational, recreational, and scientific value to our Nation and its people.” The ESA is carried out by the USFWS and the Commerce Department’s National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). These two agencies work together to protect and recover species in danger of becoming extinct; USFWS has primary responsibility for terrestrial and freshwater organisms, while the responsibilities of NMFS are mainly marine wildlife such as whales and anadromous fish such as salmon.

“Nothing is more priceless and more worthy of preservation that the rich array of animal life with which our country has been blessed.” — Richard Nixon

Under the ESA, species may be listed as either “endangered” or “threatened.” While often used interchangeably in common parlance, these are two different words denoting two different conservation actions. “Endangered” means a species is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its geographic location or “range.” “Threatened” means a species is likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future. All species of plants and animals, except pest insects, are eligible for listing as endangered or threatened. As of February 2017, the FWS has listed 2,328 species worldwide as endangered or threatened, of which 1,652 occur in the United States.

Now that we have a bit of background on the terminology, we can explore why the elusive Franklin’s bumble bee was found to warrant listing as endangered rather than threatened. The short answer is in the word “endangered” itself — danger.

Map with red dots showing records of Bombus franklini in Oregon and California, relative to BLM and USFS land. BLM District boundaries are shown in black and Resource Area boundaries are shown in grey. A red star marks Mount Ashland, the last site where this species was seen (in 2003 and 2006). Credit: The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation
Photo: Records of Bombus franklini in Oregon and California, relative to BLM and USFS land. BLM District boundaries are shown in black and Resource Area boundaries are shown in grey. A red star marks Mount Ashland, the last site where this species was seen (in 2003 and 2006). Credit: The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation

Careful analysis of the past, present and future threats revealed Franklin’s bumble bee faces real danger of extinction throughout all of its range — approximately 13,000 square mile area of the Klamath Mountain region of southern Oregon and northern California. These aren’t the only bees in trouble around here and trouble for bees is bad news for humans too. There are approximately 500 species of bees, including nearly 30 species of bumble bees, living in Oregon, and over 1,600 species of native bees found in California, including 26 bumble bee species. Many of these bees pollinate the diverse native plants, gardens, and crops grown in each state.

“Approximately 35 percent of the world’s crops — amounting to $577 billion worth of crops per year — depend on pollinators like Franklin’s bumble bee.” — Research by Bayer Bee Care Program

What threats are pushing this pollinator to the brink of extinction? While we don’t know the precise cause of their decline, the declining number of Franklin’s bumble bees throughout their range is undisputed. Already vulnerable due to their unique haplodiploid genetic system (where females develop from fertilized eggs and males from unfertilized eggs) and small population size, the Franklin’s bumble bee is less able to withstand environmental variation, catastrophic events, and changes in physical and biological conditions.

Given their susceptibility to stress, a combination of negative factors likely landed Franklin’s bumble bee on the endangered list. For instance, while we have no direct evidence that pesticide use contributed to the decline of Franklin’s bumble bee, confirmed effects to other closely related Bombus species suggest that exposure to pesticides played a role in the decline of Franklin’s bumble bee. In addition to potential stress from pesticides, low genetic diversity, pathogens, and competition from other species are working in concert against this bee.

A close up of a Franklin’s bumble bee on a yellow flower
Photo: Protecting native bees like the Franklin’s bumble bee will help ensure our native plants, gardens, and crops will continue to have an adequate supply of pollinators. Photo: Pete Schroeder/Southern Oregon University

While they typically nest underground in abandoned rodent burrows or other holes, Franklin’s bumble bees require a constant and diverse supply of flowers that bloom throughout the colony’s life cycle, from spring to autumn. They nectar on a variety of blooms found in open meadows near seeps and other wet environments and typically forage less than two miles from their colony. In other words, these guys like to stay close to home but that doesn’t mean they are easy to find.

It has been thirteen years since we’ve had a glimpse of the Franklin’s bumble bee. Faced with a challenging environment and a miniscule population, it makes sense that they are now listed as endangered on the ESA. But now you might be wondering if there is any hope for our fuzzy friend. Are there really any bees left and will listing them at this point help? The answer to both of those questions is a resounding yes.

Franklin’s bumble bees have always been rare with a small range, and search efforts for them have been inconsistent in timing, frequency, scope, and methodology. Significant high-quality, potential habitat areas have never been surveyed for Franklin’s bumble bee, including higher elevation, remote, and wilderness locations. Given the patchy and ephemeral distribution of this species, it is highly possible that future and more extensive surveys will find Franklin’s bumble bees again.

Dressed in hat, khaki pants, and armed with a net, Robbin Thorp on the hunt for bumble bees on Mt. Ashland, Oregon, the last known haunt of Franklin’s bumble bee, which may now be extinct. Dr. Thorp’s work helped to sound the alarm for bumble bee declines across North America, inspiring further research, Credit: Xerces Society / Rich Hatfield.)
Photo: Robbin Thorp on the hunt for bumble bees on Mt. Ashland, Oregon, the last known haunt of Franklin’s bumble bee, which may now be extinct. Dr. Thorp’s work helped to sound the alarm for bumble bee declines across North America, inspiring further research, Credit: Xerces Society / Rich Hatfield.)

History shows us that it is possible to find what we once assumed was lost forever. Over the past 122 years, at least 351 species deemed extinct have been rediscovered. Redisocvery can lead to recovery. Those species had not been seen on average for 61 years before being rediscovered (some were not seen for 3 years, and others for as many as 331 years). One such recent example is that of the Fender’s blue butterfly. Once thought to be extinct, the “Fairie of the Prairie” is now fluttering in enough numbers throughout Oregon’s Willamette Valley to warrant its reclassification from endangered to threatened.

Of course, it isn’t easy finding tiny winged creatures designed to dupe onlookers and whose numbers were already small to begin with. Substantial effort is needed to find rare species like Franklin’s bumble bee. Listing the bee as endangered will help by putting more focused attention and resources behind efforts to find them. It also necessitates the development of a recovery plan that will outline their conservation needs and will provide a framework for working with others on their recovery. Along with added protections as a listed species, there are things we can do daily to help Franklin’s bumble bee make a comeback. For starters, we can get planting! Franklin’s and other bumble bee species benefit from planting bee-friendly flowers and herbs in gardens that provide pollen and nectar throughout their flight season (mid-May through the end of September, and sometimes into early October).

A light, blue hued butterfly with dark spots on its wings rests on a branch in a field
Photo: Fender’s blue butterfly resting on grass. Photo credit: Oregon Department of Transportation

We can also help raise awareness of the potential impacts of pesticides. We encourage landowners to limit herbicide use and consider phasing out the use of pesticides, which can harm Franklin’s and other bee species. Pesticides are taken up by the vascular system of plants, so bees are exposed to this poison when feeding on plant nectar and pollen, long after the product has been applied and even when the products are used as seed coatings.

An illustration of three bees showing the defining characteristics of Franklin’s bumble bees in comparison to two other species of bees
Photo: Some distinguishing characteristics of the Franklin’s bumble bee to look for: Extended yellow coloration on their middle, between the head and abdomen, which extends well beyond the wing bases and forms an inverted U-shape around the central patch of black; A lack of yellow on the abdomen; A predominantly black face with yellow on the top of the head; and white coloration at the tip of the abdomen. Credit: Oregon Fish and Wildlife Office

Lastly, you can help by keeping your eyes peeled! Although the species has one of the narrowest distributions of any Bombus species in the world, more intensive surveys from 1998 to 2006 observed Franklin’s bumble bee at 11 sites, including seven locations where it had not been documented previously. Read up on how to identify a Franklin’s bumblee bee here and if you think you see a rare bumble bee in the wild, you can share the information with Bumble Bee Watch, a citizen-science project sponsored by the Xerces Society and other partners. Bumble Bee Watch is a collaborative effort to track and conserve North America’s bumble bees.

We continue to work closely with the Bureau of Land Management, the Forest Service, the scientific community, other agencies and nonprofit organizations, Tribal partners, and you — our friends in conservation — to survey for this fuzzy phantom and bee-lieve in recovery (Sorry, we really can’t help ourselves sometimes).

Check out our Franklin’s bumble bee FAQs

Read the species profile for Franklin’s bumble bee here

Learn more about helping pollinators here

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