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Four Native Bumble Bees Are Poised to be the First Pollinators Protected Under the California Endangered Species Act

California Fish and Game Commission vote comes in the wake of United Nations report finding that one million species are at risk of global extinction

May 29, 2019
Center for Food Safety


SACRAMENTO, CA—An upcoming vote of the California Fish and Game Commission could set in motion the listing of four species of native bumble bees as endangered, sealing their fate for survival. The vote to accept the California Department of Fish and Wildlife's recommendation to grant these four pollinators "candidate species" status under the California Endangered Species Act (CESA) is scheduled for June 12 in Redding. This process was triggered by a legal petition filed by conservation and food safety groups requesting that the western bumble bee, Franklin's bumble bee, Crotch's bumble bee and the Suckley cuckoo bumble bee are listed as Endangered under the act.

This critical vote will take place just weeks after the release of an alarming United Nations report finding that as many as one million plant and animal species are now at risk of extinction, posing a threat to ecosystems all over the world. Bees and other pollinating insects are especially critical, as one out of every three bites of food is dependent on pollinators such as bees and they are at the heart of a healthy environment.

"This vote by the Fish and Game Commission could not come at a more critical time," said Sarina Jepsen, Director of the Xerces Society's Endangered Species Program and coauthor of the petition. "By acting on this petition, California has an opportunity to demonstrate how an individual state can lead the nation in protecting pollinators, benefiting both farms and natural areas."

Recent studies have revealed that several bumble bee species in California are imperiled and in need of immediate conservation attention. Along with other types of bees, bumble bees are essential to the health of native ecosystems—from the flower fields of the Carrizo Plain to the montane meadows of the Sierra Nevada—as well as production of many of California's specialty crops, including tomatoes, peppers, melon, squash, cotton and almonds.

Conserving a diversity of native pollinators within the state is paramount to maintaining the state's natural heritage, as recognized in California's Biodiversity Initiative, which calls for fallowed agricultural land to be transformed into habitat for bees, creating a "pollinator highway" across the state.

"The diversity and strength of bee populations is critical to maintaining a healthy and robust food supply in California and beyond," said Rebecca Spector, West Coast Director at Center for Food Safety. "We urge the Fish and Game Commission to protect those species that are currently threatened. The future of many California crops and our food supply may be at stake."

Protecting these species will help to maintain the healthy ecosystems that make California such a remarkable and productive state. Over 80% of all terrestrial plant species require an animal pollinator (usually an insect) to reproduce. About one-third of food production depends on pollinators, and 75% of all fruits and vegetables produce higher yields when visited by pollinators. California accounts for more than 13% of the nation's total agricultural value, and protecting these four bees is an important component of protecting California's agricultural legacy.

"California's native bees are essential to keep our state blooming," stated Kim Delfino, California Program Director for Defenders of Wildlife. "Current regulations have proven insufficient to reverse the sharp decline in their populations and protection under our state endangered species act is the last line of defense if we hope to keep these four bumble bees from going extinct."

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife recommended that the petition to list these bees as endangered species under the California Endangered Species Act meets the standard that listing of these bees "may be warranted." The Commission will vote at its June 12 meeting to accept or reject the Department's recommendation. If a majority of the five-member commission votes to move these bee species to "candidate species" status, that triggers a 12-month scientific findings process to determine if the species qualify for official endangered species listing under CESA.

"These bumble bees still occur in just a few locations, primarily outside of the Central Valley," noted Jepsen. "Although farmers can help with the recovery of these bees, listing under CESA is not likely to add an additional burden to their daily work."

If the Commission votes to make these four bumble bees "candidate species," they could eventually become the first pollinators, and the first insects, to be added to the state endangered species list. Candidate status will protect these four species from activities that could cause them to go extinct during the 12-month review period and will allow for additional conservation measures to be implemented. Efforts are already underway to restore habitat for bees on farms and in cities throughout California. An increased investment in pollinator habitat, along with protection from insecticides and pathogens, will be required to prevent extinction of these bumble bees.

Bumble Bee Profiles

  • Crotch's bumble bee (Bombus crotchii), a bee with yellow, black and often orange on its abdomen, is considered Endangered by the International Union of the Conservation of Nature (IUCN); it only persists in 20% of its historic range, and has declined by 98% in relative abundance (its abundance relative to other species of bumble bees). This bee historically occurred from the northern Central Valley to Baja Mexico, but currently persists primarily in southern coastal habitats and some areas to the north and southwest of Sacramento.
  • The western bumble bee (Bombus occidentalis occidentalis) has a range that extends across the western U.S. and southern Canada. In California, it was historically known from the northern part of the state, the coastal region, and the mountains. It currently persists primarily in the Sierra Nevada; its relative abundance has declined by 84%.
  • The Suckley cuckoo bumble bee (Bombus suckleyi) was historically found throughout the western U.S. As a cuckoo bumble bee, it is found only where its host species of bumble bees, including the western bumble bee, remain. It is considered Critically Endangered by the IUCN and its range has declined by 58%.
  • Franklin's bumble bee (Bombus franklini), which historically occurred in an area about 60 miles wide in the Siskiyou Mountains of northern California and southern Oregon may already be extinct. Despite extensive annual surveys by Dr. Robbin Thorp, professor emeritus at the University of California–Davis, Franklin's bumble bee has not been seen since 2006.

Take action: Urge the California Fish and Game Commission to add threatened bumble bees to the California Endangered Species list >>

Read the CESA petition HERE >>

Read CDFW report to Fish and Game Commission HERE >>

Photos are available HERE >>

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