Saving the rusty-patched bumblebee

Published 10:12 pm Tuesday, March 28, 2017

By Susan and Biff Andrews

Last week the rusty-patched bumblebee became the first bee ever protected by federal law. It was a decision a long time coming and long overdue.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service acted — over the objections of several commercial interests — to protect us from our own greedy industries. More protections will probably be needed before long.

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The bumblebee’s importance cannot be overestimated. It’s the only major pollinator of tomatoes. Along with honeybees and butterflies, they pollinate 75 percent of the world’s food supply.

But 40 percent of all pollinators now face extinction.

In the last 20 years, the rusty-patched bumblebee has declined in 90 percent of its range. Its former range — 28 states in the Eastern U.S. — has now declined to only 13 states, which include Virginia and North Carolina.

There are multiple causes for the decline:

  • Habitat loss: There are few grasslands or prairies anymore. The rusty-patched bumblebee nests underground. When fields get plowed up for big agriculture or for housing developments, the bees are the ones that lose.
  • Big agriculture: Major farm operations grow one crop and one crop only. These monocultures all blossom at once. Thereafter… nada. They use the herbicide glysophate on genetically modified corn or soybean crops, which eliminates milkweed and, therefore, the monarch butterflies and rusty-patched bumblebees that depend on milkweed.
  • Pesticides: Recently developed (20 years old) neonicotinoids — yes, the same nicotine that’s in the cigarettes — are sprayed on seeds, and the chemicals grow in the plant and suffuse the blossoms and pollen and nectar. Bees suck on the nectar and die.

Most neonicotinoids were developed by German agricultural giant Bayer. When Europe saw what was happening to their bees, they banned the pesticide. Not so in the United States.

  • Imported bumblebees: When they are sent abroad and raised commercially by the billion and then reintroduced to the U.S., bumblebees bring back acquired pathogens from overseas, and those pathogens enter the native population. This is not good.

All of these factors are threatening our rusty-patched bees.

So what can you do to help them?

  • Grow a garden, any garden with plants that flower. Veggies are best. The bees need the nectar.
  • Limit pesticides and fertilizers or, even better, avoid them entirely, unless you’re a chemical expert and know beforehand what the harmful effects may be.
  • Use native plants. People are getting smarter and demanding them now, so the number available at local nurseries is soaring. Non-natives are pretty, but they’re useless, and so you should “use less.”
  • Provide natural areas. Leave some areas in your yard undisturbed, un-mowed, untilled. If you discover an underground nest, let it be and avoid it.

We have the power to bring back the rusty-patched bumblebee, the same way we did the bald eagle and the brown pelican. It’s a matter of will.

Will we or won’t we?

Susan and Bradford “Biff” Andrews are retired teachers and master naturalists who have been outdoor people all their lives, exploring and enjoying the woods, swamps, rivers and beaches throughout the region for many years. Email them at