Bumble Bee Species Declared Endangered in the U.S. for First Time

For the first time in the history of the continental United States, a species of bumble bee that was once a common sight across much of the nation has been declared an endangered species.

The rusty patched bumble bee was abundant across 28 states from Connecticut to South Dakota and up into Canada just 20 years ago, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said, but is now "balancing precariously on the brink of extinction."

Image: This 2012 photo provided by The Xerces Society shows a rusty patched bumblebee in Minnesota.
This 2012 photo provided by The Xerces Society shows a rusty patched bumblebee in Minnesota. Sarina Jepsen / The Xerces Society via AP

The bee's population has "plummeted by 87 percent" after a dramatic decline starting in the late 1990s, the FWS said in a statement announcing that the bee would now be protected under the Endangered Species Act.

The rusty patched bumble bee has recently only been spotted in small, scattered populations in 13 states, according to the FWS.

The agency declared the bumble bee species endangered on Tuesday, following a petition and lawsuit from advocacy groups.

"Bees are dying and we need to do something to save them," Rebecca Riley, senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council told NBC News Thursday. The NRDC partnered with wildlife protection non-profit the Xerces Society to petition the FWS to declare the species endangered.

The rusty patched bumble bee is the first of its kind to be declared endangered in the continental United States, Riley said, noting the development was "incredibly significant."

Related: U.S. Adds Bees to Endangered Species List for First Time

"This bumble bee is just one of many bees that are in trouble and listing the rusty patched bumble bee is a really good first step toward taking action to save bees — and it's going to take an all hands on deck approach," Riley said.

The bees population has drastically diminished over the decades due to habitat loss, use of pesticides, disease and climate change, according to the FWS.

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The "endangered" designation is reserved for species that are in danger of becoming extinct throughout all or a portion of their habitat range, according to the FWS.

This past October, seven types of bees once found in abundance in Hawaii became the first bees in the nation to be added to the endangered species list.

FWS Midwest Regional Director Tom Melius said in a statement that the bumble bee, and pollinators like it, play a vital role in the lives of human beings.

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"Pollinators are small but mighty parts of the natural mechanism that sustains us and our world,” he said. “Without them, our forests, parks, meadows and shrublands, and the abundant, vibrant life they support, cannot survive, and our crops require laborious, costly pollination by hand.”

Riley echoed that sentiment, saying a decline of bees could lead to a reduction in the amount of food humans are able to produce.

“That is food security issue,” she said.

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Riley said that the NRDC’s hope was that the endangered declaration would force the U.S. to “start taking stronger action to do what’s necessary to recover these bees.”

“That’s what the goal is, to bring this species back to healthy level,” she said.

Those steps included studying and lowering pesticide use and planting new habitats for the bees to thrive in, she said.

“The good news is that the actions that will help the rusty patched bumble bee and the bees in Hawaii are the same actions that will help all bees,” she said.