On Tuesday, the U.S. Department of the Interior officially added the rusty patched bumblebee to the endangered species list, sparking concerns about the rapid decline of the bee population.
MINNEAPOLIS – While proposals to place honeybees on the endangered species list have been in speculation for months, some have argued that the population of the world’s most important pollinator could still make a comeback. However, that has proven not to be the case, as the first bee species has now been officially placed on the endangered species list by the United States Department of the Interior.
The rusty patched bumblebee, once one of the most prominent insects in the Midwest, has officially been recognized as endangered by the federal government, owing to a 90-percent decrease in its population in just the past few years. This rapid decline has sparked concern over the potential collapse of the entire national bee population – a collapse that would have drastic implications for both the U.S. economy and environment.
The decline has indeed been rapid, as well as drastic, with 40 to 60 percent of the U.S. honeybee population disappearing just in 2015. The situation has since worsened, with more than half of all bee species in decline and 347 species “spiraling toward extinction,” according to a recent report released by the Center for Biological Diversity.
But like all major environmental crises facing the U.S., there is plenty of disagreement as to what is responsible for the massive decrease in the bee population, which has an estimated economic value of 3.5 billion dollars. However, several studies has shown that the large-scale use of pesticides in the agricultural industry has played a major role in the pollinator’s worrisome decline.
Beginning in 2012, major studies began to reveal a link between certain classes of pesticides – neonicotinoids, specifically – and colony collapse disorder, a phenomenon in which bees abandon their hives and die as a result. These findings prompted the European Food Safety Authority to deem neonicotinoid use an “unacceptable” danger to bee populations.
Subsequent studies, including one conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health in 2014, replicated these results. A year later, researchers at the University of St. Andrews found that neonicotinoids directly impair bee brain function, resulting in the poor performance of bee colonies. Last year, a study published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B found that neonicotinoids reduced male bee sperm counts by up to 40 percent.
Despite the growing scientific consensus linking the declining bee population to pesticide use, industry-funded scientists and agrochemical producers are evidently intent on defending the safety and usefulness of their products. It is in their economic interest to do so, as neonicotinoids represent 40 percent of the entire insecticide market, generating billions in global sales annually.
These same corporations and interest groups have strongly criticized the government’s decision to place the rusty patched bumblebee on the endangered species list, calling it a “hasty listing decision” with consequences that “are difficult to overstate.”
One group opposing the decision is the American Petroleum Institute, which is likely interested in the issue because petroleum derivatives are key ingredients in pesticides. The National Cotton Council in America has also voiced opposition – likely because the cotton industry accounts for 24 percent of global insecticide sales.
While defending their products may be in the short-term interest of pesticide companies and other industry beneficiaries, the disappearance of the bee population is a concern for the long-term survival of not just the agricultural industry, but entire ecosystems. It remains to be seen if official recognition of the dwindling bee population will be enough to override industry lobbying efforts among scientists and politicians.