The rusty-patched bumble bee was listed in 2017 as an endangered species, the first ever bumble bee in the United States to receive such a designation. Once historically abundant and widespread across the eastern U.S. and Canada, since the 1990s this native bumble bee has declined dramatically, now occupying a small fraction of its former range.

A species status assessment predicts extinction in most areas of its range within five years.

The plight of the rusty-patched is thought not to be an isolated occurrence, but a symptom of widespread decline of other bumble bees and many other insect pollinators. Habitat loss and overwhelming threats are taking their toll. In the case of the rusty-patched, two big threats include pesticides and pathogens.

What difference does it make whether this bee, or any bee survives into the future? Bumble bees are pollinators, moving pollen within and between flowers, leading to fertilization and the development of seeds and fruit.

More than 80 percent of the world’s flowering plants rely on pollinators, the majority of which are bees. Native bees provide the foundation of functioning ecosystems.

Worldwide, many of our agricultural crops are pollinated by European honey bees, but not just domesticated bees are important to our food supply. In a recent international study of 41 crop systems on six continents, it was shown that healthy populations of wild bees are key to the successful yields of crops. Bees pollinate over two-thirds of the world’s agricultural crops.

Later this year the United Nations will release a report on the most comprehensive study of life on earth. The UN’s Extinction Report reveals that the loss of natural habitats around the world has placed 1 million species at risk of extinction. That’s 1 million out of a total of 8 million species at risk of extinction, more than ever before in human history.

The accelerating deterioration of nature serves as a stark warning as we are jeopardizing humanity’s collective future. A loss of biodiversity at this scale would affect medicine, food systems, energy, and more.

The report recommends transformation to a sustainable society, protecting the functioning ecosystems that still exist and restoring those that have been damaged. The first step to getting there is recognizing where we are.

What will help us get there? Think globally, act locally.

On the Chippewa National Forest there is a Forest Plan. It describes the desired condition of aquatic and terrestrial wildlife habitats on the National Forest. It says the land should contribute to ecosystem sustainability and the biological diversity of Northern Minnesota.

By law, the U.S. Forest Service is tasked to maintain viable populations of all existing native species. This is a task that cannot be carried out in a vacuum, but requires a thoughtful and collaborative approach with our public and conservation partners. A tall order, but one that grows increasingly important in our rapidly changing world.

This week a group convened at the Minnesota Zoo to begin development of a recovery plan for the rusty-patched bumble bee. They came from across the country, representing different agencies and other entities, and included some of the leading bee experts in the U.S. Entomologists, zoologists, biologists, field surveyors, researchers, contractors and others shared their expertise, judgement and ideas as a path forward toward improving the plight of the bee is sought.

The recovery plan can be thought of as a road map with prioritized management actions for private, Tribal, federal, and state cooperation in conserving listed species and their ecosystems. It includes a vision of what the species’ recovered state looks like, the threats that need to be ameliorated, and a strategy for how to get there.

And you know what? If we can change the circumstances for this bee on the edge, along the way we will also have improved conditions for a number of other species, as well, including human beings.

Is it even possible for a species in such a dire predicament to recover? That’s hard to say. But what does it portend for other bees, other pollinators, healthy ecosystems, and mankind if such a possibility no longer exists?

Chippewa National Forest staff is a part of the recovery plan effort. The distribution of known remaining rusty-patched bumble bees reflects a primary swath of bees through southeastern Minnesota from the Twin Cities down into southern Wisconsin and eastern Iowa. Way up in northern Minnesota on the Chippewa National Forest, many miles from the main occurrence data there are some small specs on the distribution map where but a couple of rusty-patched have recently been found.

What are these bees doing here? How many colonies might there be in this area? Do they represent the last remnants before the species winks out of our northern woods? Or could they be a stronghold of recovery in this part of the range, an important part of genetic diversity into the future, having survived what have been some dramatic selective forces? Dare we to believe these bees might be a source of hope?

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