Law Students Work to Protect Dwindling Bumblebees

American bumblebee is closer to being declared endangered.

Macro Insect American Bumble Bee (Bombus pensylvanicus) Pollinating Flower

ElementalImaging / Getty Images

Once the most commonly spotted bee in the United States, the American bumblebee has nearly disappeared from 16 states. But thanks to some law students and their professor, the important pollinator may earn protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

The bee was once commonly found in grasslands, open prairies, and urban locations in most of the country. But over the past two decades, it has been entirely lost in eight states and nearly vanished from several more.

Populations of the American bumblebee (Bombus pensylvanicus) have declined 89% across its range, according to the International Union for the Protection of Nature (IUCN). The species is listed as vulnerable with populations decreasing by the IUCN.

The heavy use of pesticides, the loss of agricultural habitats, and the spread of disease from other bees are just some of the reasons that these once-abundant bees have become lost.

But now the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is undergoing a one-year assessment of the species to see if it warrants inclusion under the ESA. A group of law students in New York helped trigger the investigation.

Albany Law School students launched their bee-based project in 2019 in professor Keith Hirokawa’s environmental law class.

“In most of my classes, students are encouraged (sometimes required) to engage the community through some environmental legal project. That class was particularly interested in pollinators,” Hirokawa tells Treehugger. “The students in my environmental law class were given the opportunity to choose their final project. They researched the science, identified the American Bumblebee as a candidate for protection, and assembled the petition.”

The students formed the Bombus Pollinator Association of Law Students of Albany Law School then joined the Center for Biological Diversity to form a partnership in the project.

“They contributed a very sophisticated understanding of the science behind threats and vulnerabilities of the American Bumblebee,” Hirokawa says.

The groups filed a petition with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in February 2021 to add the American bumblebee to the list of endangered species. In late September, the FWS responded, announcing it would launch a 12-month analysis to determine whether the bee should be added to the list.

“This is an important first step in preventing the extinction of this fuzzy black-and-yellow beauty that was once a familiar sight,” Jess Tyler, a Center for Biological Diversity scientist and petition co-author, said in a statement. “To survive unchecked threats of disease, habitat loss and pesticide poisoning, American bumblebees need the full protection of the Endangered Species Act right now.”

The Petition Was Key

Much of what the law students learned about bees came from research on the project, Hirokawa says.

And now after their research and legal assistance, their petition played an important role in potentially protecting the species.

“As I understand, the F&W was not considering the status of the American Bumblebee at the time we filed the petition,” Hirokawa says. “Accordingly, this petition was the key.”

Only two bumblebees—the rusty patched and Franklin’s—are now protected under the Act.

The service will now do a detailed scientific review of the species’ status and create a public comment period before deciding on the American bumblebee’s endangered status.

As for the law students, they’ve moved on to tackle another environment project, Hirokawa says.

“This semester, my students are drafting tree protection legislation natural resource inventory reports for local governments,” he says. “They are also holding public workshops to inform and educate the public about environmental impact review and comprehensive land use planning.”

View Article Sources
  1. "American Bumblebee Takes Step Toward Endangered Species Act Protection." Center for Biological Diversity, 2021.

  2. "Saving The American Bumblebee." Center for Biological Diversity.

  3. Hatfield, R., et al. "American Bumblebee." The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, 2015, doi:10.2305/IUCN.UK.2015-4.RLTS.T21215172A21215281

  4. "Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants; 90-Day Findings for Five Species." Federal Register, 2021.

  5. Albany Law School professor Keith Hirokawa

  6. "Petition To List The American Bumble Bee Bombus pensylvanicus (De Geer, 1773) as an Endangered Species Under the U.S. Endangered Species Act." Center for Biological Diversity, 2021.

  7. "FWS-Listed U.S. Species by Taxonomic Group - Insects." U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.