U.S. Declares Bees Endangered for First Time

Hylaeus assimulans is one of seven yellow-faced bee species now under federal protection. (Photo: Matthew Shepherd/The Xerces Society)

It's a bad time to be a bee, with the insects increasingly plagued by ecological crises around the world. There is still time for many endangered bees to be saved, though — and some species may finally be generating the buzz they deserve.

For the first time in history, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has added bees to its list of endangered species, a potential turning point in the country's relationship with native pollinators. The new listing covers seven bee species from Hawaii, but acknowledges issues that threaten bees across North America and beyond.

Only one genus of bees is native to Hawaii: Hylaeus, commonly known as yellow-faced bees due to facial markings that range from white to yellow. These bees all evolved from an ancestral species that somehow colonized the remote islands on its own, according to a fact sheet from the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

"From that one original colonist they evolved into 63 known endemic species, about 10% of the world's yellow-faced bees and more than are found in this genus in all of North America," writes Karl Magnacca, an entomologist with the Oahu Army Natural Resource Program. "With no other bees to compete with, they spread to all habitats in the islands," which let them diversify into today's mix of Hawaiian bees.

yellow-faced bee from Hawaii
Some yellow-faced bees, like this one from Maui, are less yellow than others. (Photo: U.S. Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab)

Yellow-faced bees have become vital pollinators for many of Hawaii's native plants, Magnacca adds, including ohia trees and silverswords, some of which are now endangered themselves. They thrived in Hawaii until relatively recently, when humans began developing more habitat more quickly. Seven of the rarest species owe their new legal status to a long campaign led by the Xerces Society, an Oregon-based conservation group that first petitioned the FWS to protect them in 2009.

Those seven newly listed species are:

  • Hylaeus anthracinus
  • Hylaeus assimulans
  • Hylaeus facilis
  • Hylaeus hilaris
  • Hylaeus kuakea
  • Hylaeus longiceps
  • Hylaeus mana

"The USFWS decision is excellent news for these bees," Xerces communications director Matthew Shepherd writes in a press release, "but there is much work that needs to be done to ensure that Hawaii's bees thrive."

That's because the bees are still being boxed out, as farms and other development fragment their habitats. This threat is severe in Hawaii — known as "endangered species capital of the world" due largely to habitat loss and invasive species — but it's happening to some degree all over the planet. From bees and butterflies seeking nectar to tigers and lemurs stuck in shrinking forests, much of Earth's mass extinction crisis boils down to territorial disputes between humans and wildlife.

Any extinction is tragic, but pollinators are especially important for ecosystems — including farms, where about 75 percent of all food crops rely at least partly on pollination. Not only are lots of domesticated honeybees disappearing, but the decline of many wild bees has been linked to factors such as insecticide use, invasive species and habitat loss. According to a 2016 U.N. report, about 40 percent of invertebrate pollinator species are now threatened with extinction worldwide.

yellow-faced bee with Haleakala silversword
A Haleakala silversword attracts a yellow-faced bee at Maui's Haleakala National Park. (Photo: Forest and Kim Starr/Flickr)

And as U.S. wildlife officials explain, the fate of Hawaii's newly protected bees is intertwined with the fate of native flowering plants.

"Destruction and modification of Hylaeus habitat by urbanization and land use conversion, including agriculture, has led to the fragmentation of foraging and nesting habitat of these species," the FWS writes in its new rule, published Sept. 30 in the Federal Register. "In particular, because native host plant species are known to be essential to the yellow-faced bees for foraging of nectar and pollen, any further loss of this habitat may reduce their long-term chances for recovery. Additionally, further destruction and modification of Hylaeus habitat is also likely to facilitate the introduction and spread of nonnative plants within these areas."

Hawaiian bees are tough, and "have managed to persist with amazing tenacity," Magnacca writes. The new protections take effect on Oct. 31, and may come in time to avert extinctions. But aside from protecting actual bees, Shepherd argues, saving species will also mean turning at least some habitats into safe havens.

"These bees are often found in small patches of habitat hemmed in by agricultural land or developments," he writes. "Unfortunately, the USFWS has not designated any 'critical habitat,' areas of land of particular importance for the endangered bees."

Designating critical habitat is a big part of adding species to the U.S. endangered list. But it can be a slow, laborious process, as the FWS acknowledges, explaining it needs more time "to analyze the best available scientific data" about specific sites, "and to analyze the impacts of designating such areas as critical habitat."

While these seven bees are the first added to the U.S. endangered species list, they're unlikely to be the last. The FWS also recently proposed listing the rare rusty-patched bumblebee, for example, raising hopes for many other embattled bees that protection is a possibility. And even bumblebees are capable of optimism.