A rare Nevada bee with declining population could be granted protection under the Endangered Species Act by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
This marks an “extremely important hurdle” for the Mojave poppy bee, said Tara Cornelisse, senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity. “It means they believe there is good evidence that the bees are declining.”
The Mojave poppy bee — part of a genus scientists affectionately refer to as the “fairy bee” — once thrived across the Mojave Desert in Nevada. Now, the quarter-inch long yellow and black striped insect is at the brink of extinction, with just a few populations sprinkled throughout Clark County, Cornelisse said.
Factors such as overgrazing, recreational activities, gypsum mining and habitat fragmentation caused by development contributed to its decline. That’s why the Center for Biological Diversity filed a petition late last year to give the bee protections.
Exact population figures are tough to track, officials say. Rather, it's based on sightings.
In 1993, when the species was first discovered, it was prominent in the Mojave National Preserve in California, Washington County, Utah, and Arizona's White Hills. Today, the bee hasn't been found in any those locations in more than two decades. Scientists have only been able to find the bees near the Lake Mead National Recreation Area and adjacent to Bureau of Land Management lands in Nevada.
The Fish and Wildlife Service will conduct a scientific status review and public comment period before making a final decision. If approved, the bee would be the first native, solitary bee in the continental United States to be protected under the act.
Cornelisse said the bee is a crucial part of the desert ecosystem, in the way it pollinates the Las Vegas bearpoppy and the dwarf bearpoppy, which is one of 78 species protected under the Clark County Multiple Species Habitat Conservation Plan.
“Males are territorial and will sit on a flower and wait for a female to mate, but another male will come and take over that flower and have a little tussle. In this little tussle, they get covered in pollen, and that makes pollination really efficient.”
The Mojave bee’s decline is part of a wider trend, joining 4,000-plus species of wild, mostly solitary bees in its disappearance. Bee populations worldwide are reportedly threatened, both in the news and in peer-reviewed studies.
So much so, that it has turned into an internet meme.
Yet, it’s difficult to get bees — or any insect — endangered species protections, Cornelisse said. Right now, the rusty patched bumble bee — a social bee — is the only bee in the continental United States with protections.
“The problem with insects and native bees in particular, is that it’s difficult to get concrete information on population numbers and range and abundance,” she said. “A lot of these insect-decline reports have really put everyone in high gear to take a closer look.”
That’s why getting enough information on the Mojave bee was so crucial, she added.
“Hopefully once we get it protected and move forward … we can show how the Endangered Species Act can be used as a toolbox for conservation actions we can draw upon,” she said.