Science, Now + Beyond

Warning: Bumblebees are now endangered

The humble bumblebee is now perched precariously on the brink of extinction. Why, and how can we help to reverse this?

In “The Stolen Earth”, an episode of the popular science fiction show Doctor Who, Donna, the doctor’s then companion, tells him bees have been disappearing from Earth. In the Doctor Who universe, this was because the bees were returning to their home planet, Melissa Majoria. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately for some), we don’t live in this particular universe. Yet the bees are still disappearing. Well, bumblebees, at least.


Last year, seven species of Hawaiian yellow-faced bees were declared endangered. Now, the rusty patched bumblebee has also been added to this list.

The rusty patched bumblebee (Bombus Affinis), once a common sight in the US, has declined by a whopping 87 percent since the 1990s. It once thrived in 28 states and 2 Canadian provinces, but can now only be found in small pockets of their previous habitats. Wildlife officials think this is a result of exposure to pesticides, disease, habitat loss, and of course, climate change. Pesticides have decreased the number of crops available for bumblebees to pollinate, shrinking the area of their potential habitats. Climate change has had a similar effect, but has also changed weather patterns. This has caused some plants’ flowering times to be out of sync with the optimal time for bees to pollinate them.

You may only know bees as those pesky insects that hurt you when they sting, but they do play an integral role in our lives. Bees are pollinators, and over 20,000 different species of bees contribute to the growth of fruit, flowers, vegetables, and even some trees that bear nuts. The disappearance of such pollinators will have serious implications on our food supply, as plants that require pollination comprise about 35% of the world’s food supply. In monetary terms, this is about $577 million a year. Tom Melius, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Midwest regional director, has also said that “Without them (bumblebees), our forests, parks, meadows and shrub lands, and the abundant, vibrant life they support, cannot survive, and our crops require laborious, costly pollination by hand.”

Do you love tomatoes? Their survival may depend on that of the rusty patched bumblebee.

Bumblebees in particular are great pollinators. They are not picky with the plants they pollinate, and are able to withstand lower temperatures and can still fly when light is poor. They are also users of buzz pollination, which means they can release pollen that is tucked inside special tubes. Tomatoes, cranberries, and potatoes (to name a few) are plants that can only be pollinated through this method. Buzz pollination is so named because of the “buzzing” sound heard while the bumblebees are doing their jobs. Interestingly, honeybees are unable to use this method of pollination, making the survival of bumblebee population even more important than you might first think.

A sting from this bee may hurt, but a global food shortage will hurt even more.

Its inclusion on the endangered species list is a good start. This means a recovery plan is drawn up. This recovery plan “identifies and prioritizes actions needed to conserve and recover a species”. Additionally, species on this list “are usually considered as priorities during land-use planning”. This means more of the bumblebees’ habitat will be protected against land clearing and other developments.

So what can you do? If you are a bee enthusiast, you can help track bumblebees here, at Bumble Bee Watch. This is a project run by citizens that helps scientists track the movements of bumblebees in order to help with their research. If you’re not as keen but still want to help out, something as simple as planting more flowers or starting your own vegetable patch is a good start. Hopefully in time, we will be able to get bumblebee populations up to scratch.