The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering the Franklin's bumble bee as a possible candidate for the endangered species list. Researchers haven't seen the Oregon and California native since 2006. And they're starting to wonder if it's extinct.
It's been known to live in Douglas, Jackson and Josephine counties in southwest Oregon, and in Siskiyou and Trinity counties in northern California.
But scientists have been finding fewer and fewer of them since 1998. The last documented sighting was one lone worker bee in 2006. Have you seen one? The Fish and Wildlife Service is looking more information about how many of them are left. Though scientists have reported bee population declines across the country, so far no bee species have been listed for Endangered Species protection.
There are several suspected causes of the Franklin's bumble bee decline but no one smoking gun, despite 12 years of research funded by the Fish and Wildlife Service. Before the agency can list the species for protection under the Endangered Species Act, officials need to do some homework.
"We have long considered the Franklin's bumble bee a species of concern, and surveys over a dozen years seem to reveal a significant decline," said Paul Henson, state supervisor of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Oregon office. "We have some information on potential causes, but we don't know specifically what is happening with this particular species."
The Portland-based Xerces Society petitioned to have the Franklin's bumble bee considered for listing under the Endangered Species Act last year. That was after the organization petitioned the U.S. Department of Agriculture to ask for tighter regulation of non-native commercial bumblebees, which Xerces Executive Director Scott Black suspects are spreading disease to already fragile native bees.
He said the Franklin's bumble bees are likely in decline because of several factors, including lost habitat, pesticides, competition from non-native bees and climate change. On top of other factors, he said, disease from commercial bees would be even more damaging.
"One of the issues pointed out in this finding is that commercial bumblebees may have spread a disease to wild bumblebees in the West," Black said. "We would like these federal agencies to start looking at whether we can put restrictions on the movement of commercial bumblebees and making sure the commercial producers do a better job at determining whether hives are diseased before they start moving them around."
Dr. Robbin Thorp, an entomology professor at the University of California at Davis, has done annual surveys of the Franklin's bumble bee, and his sightings declined from a high of 94 individuals in 1998 to 20 in 1999. They were down to zero from 2003 to 2006, when he found just one. A separate BLM survey in 2006 searched 16 sites with ideal habitat for Franklin's bumble bee, but found none.
If the bumble bee species is listed, Black said, he'd like to see more effort put toward locating whatever populations are left and protecting them from overgrazing, invasive species and possibly the use of fire on public lands.
He also noted that this is not the only bumble bee species that's declining.
"We believe this should be a wake up call because it's not just this species," he said. "We've got information on a variety of other species of bumble bees across the United States that are declining, and we need to start taking action now so we don't see major problems in the future."
One important footnote to this is that this is NOT a "colony collapse disorder" story, though bumble bees are important pollinators, too. I've seen lots of stories about bee colony collapse, but that disorder only affects honeybees, which are non-native species.
In fact, Black said, there are still millions and millions of honeybees in the U.S. in part because of the people who keep hives. As I noted earlier, native bumble bee populations have declined by a jaw-dropping 96 percent in the past few decades.
"What peole don't realize is that many of our native species are actually declining at a more precipitous decline than honeybees," said Black. "We have more than 4,000 species of native bees. We don't know that much about many of them but the ones we know the most about, many of them also seem to be in decline."
Bee colony collapse may parallel the decline of bumble bees because it's caused by a disease, Black said, "but it's a different disease and a different species."
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, scientists have identified a common strain affecting bumble bees in Europe and the U.S., and they're trying to determine whether it was imported or if it's naturally occurring here.
Fish and Wildlife are moving into the next phase of the Endangered Species Act, the status review. It involves gathering information about the species in order to determine whether it can be a candidate for listing.