In the northern Midwest state of Minnesota, the government has agreed to nearly $1 million in funding to pay residents to tear out their lawns and plant gardens in the hopes of saving an endangered bumblebee.
The money will cover 75 percent or more of the cost of replanting yards with pollinator-friendly plants such as clover, and it is a ray of hope for United States agriculture experts and environmental advocates concerned about the collapse of bee populations – so concerned, in fact, they’ve filed lawsuits to protect this one.
The rusty patched bumblebee is still making its home in Minnesota but its numbers have dwindled and it is perilously close to extinction. It was once common in 31 states and Canadian provinces, according to the United States Fish & Wildlife Service, but now it’s seen only in pockets of 13 states or provinces. The bee has not been seen in New York, for example, in 20 years, and its overall population has declined by 91 percent because of pesticide exposure, habitat loss and climate change, disease and related factors.
There’s a rare sanctuary at the University of Wisconsin Madison, not far from the Minnesota border, where the bees were found living on a 1,200-acre natural arboretum. The center supports pollinator protection, and the rusty patched bumblebee is needed to grow tomatoes, berries and other crops.
The Fish & Wildlife Service proposed placing the bee on the endangered species list in 2016 and warned that, even under what is likely to be an optimistic scenario, it was likely to be extinct in 30 years.
High temperatures and drought are catastrophic because the bees can’t forage and feed in the heat, and drought damages the available flowers. “If flowers are lacking at any point during their active season, colonies will starve and the population will collapse,” the service warned in its report.
Yet when U.S. President Donald Trump took office in January 2017, the administration put action on the rusty patched bumblebee into a stall. The National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) sued and won, and the bee was placed on the list as was intended.
“While native bees like the rusty patched don’t always get the same attention as honey bees, they are just as important to our food and our environment, and many are just as in trouble,” the NRDC said at the time. “That’s why we’re hopeful that the protections the rusty patched bumble bee now enjoys will begin to help other bees too, chipping away at the larger bee crisis before it’s too late.”
It turned out that wasn’t the last legal challenge though. Under the Endangered Species Act, the bee is supposed to have critical habitat protections. Two deadlines passed without the U.S. agency taking action, so the NRDC filed another lawsuit in early 2019.
The environmental advocates at NRDC welcomed the news of Minnesota’s initiative in early May, and the now-approved budget headed to the governor’s desk will help homeowners to make their yards a friendly habitat for the rusty patched bumblebee.
Those residents who do will take a big step forward in creating more sustainable communities, but environmental advocates want the federal government to honor its commitment to enact the habitat protections for the endangered bee too.