Last week brought big news in the conservation world: For the first time, a bee species — seven of them, actually — were declared endangered.
The seven types of yellow-faced bees native to Hawaii received the designation from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The move offers the creatures some newfound protection, even if the agency failed to designate a critical habitat.
Of course, the plight of bees across the U.S., North America and the world has increasingly been on the radar of the environmentally minded in recent years.
U.S. beekeepers lost about 40 percent of their honeybee colonies last year, according to a survey commissioned in 2015. Some studies have linked bee die-offs to the overuse of pesticides. The agriculture industry contests that finding, though the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has agreed that one of the world’s most widely used insecticides, imidacloprid, presents a threat to some pollinators.
So what makes last week’s news different from what we already knew? And what can be done to address the issue?
The Huffington Post recently spoke with Tiffany Finck-Haynes, a food futures campaigner at the nonprofit Friends of the Earth environmental advocacy group and an expert in bee populations.
We’ve known about threats facing bees for some time now, and the problem has received a great deal of attention. What makes this noteworthy?
There are 4,000 different types of native bee species in North America, and so this is really the first time bees have ever been listed under the Endangered Species Act. That’s really important. We know there has been a rapid decline of a lot of different types of bees. We are aware of honeybees’ decline because beekepeers are keeping track. For these specific species in Hawaii, there have been indications since the ‘80s that they were declining at an alarming rate. So the fact that they’re putting in place some protections for the species is really significant and an important precedent for other native bee species, as well as our honeybees.
Are there other species nearing endangered status, too?
One of the other native bee species that has been under consideration by the Fish and Wildlife Service is the rusty patched bumblebee. There are lots of indications that it’s also declining at a pretty alarming rate, as much as 95 percent. The state of Vermont and Canada already have it listed under their endangered species acts.
Beyond that, there is unfortunately not enough research for each of the individual bee species out there. One hopeful initiative for me is that Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon) has introduced a discussion draft of a bill, the Pollinator Recovery Act of 2016. What’s strong about this bill is that it sets up a monitoring program for the species through the [U.S. Department of Agriculture], so that we can track what’s going on with these populations and get more concrete data so that, before we’re at the point where we’re at with the rusty patched bumblebee, we can hopefully prevent that sort of rapid decline from happening.
Do you get the sense that there is political will on that particular legislation to address this?
I think from my conversations on Capitol Hill, both sides of the aisle recognize that this is a really dire situation that needs to be addressed right now. It’s gaining bipartisan support which I think is really important. I think President Obama’s pollinator strategy memorandum he put out a couple of years ago set a really important precedent and there’s a lot more we can build on to get really strong protections for pollinators in the U.S.
I get the sense that because this issue has been known about for some time, with colony collapse disorder in particular, some people make light of it, like it’s a punchline. How do you react to that?
I think I just have to remind everybody that without bees and other pollinators, we wouldn’t be able to eat a lot of the nutritious and delicious food we eat on a daily basis. It’s not just the beautiful honeybees that are so important, but the hundreds of thousands of species around the world that all need to be protected.
What do you see as the biggest obstacles on the horizon to achieving that?
The challenges are usually that, unfortunately, manufacturers of pesticides that are contributing to bee decline are using a lot of their lobbying muscle to stop protections at the federal and state level. The public needs to be aware of that and needs to be voicing strong support of policies that protect pollinators so that policymakers can be held accountable to their constituents and not the manufacturers responsible for these pesticides.
What can people who are concerned about the bee population do to address this right now?
There’s a lot that people can do. One is just to take action in their own back yards by planting a pollinator-friendly habitat, ideally free of pesticides so that it’s the most nutritious and safe habitat pollinators can get. The other thing people are doing across the country is passing pollinator-friendly resolutions or policies at the city, university and school district level that are essentially working to do just that ― plant safe, pollinator-friendly habitats. And then they can get involved by urging their members of Congress or state legislators to support policies like the Pollinator Recovery Act.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Joseph Erbentraut covers promising innovations and challenges in the areas of food and water. In addition, Erbentraut explores the evolving ways Americans are identifying and defining themselves. Follow Erbentraut on Twitter at @robojojo. Tips? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.