Hawaii's bees are now protected under U.S. Endangered Species Act

Hawaii's bees are now protected under U.S. Endangered Species Act

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A carpenter bee, aka a competitor to Hawaii's endangered yellow-faced bees.A carpenter bee, aka a competitor to Hawaii's endangered yellow-faced bees.
Image: AP Photo/Ted Richardson
2016%2f09%2f16%2f30%2f2016091585httpsblueprintapiproduction.s3.amazonaws..e5729By Maria Gallucci2016-11-01 19:40:16 UTC

The race is on to keep Hawaii's native bees from vanishing.

Seven of Hawaii's yellow-faced bee species are now officially protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, a step that will allow authorities to carry out recovery programs and limit harm from outside sources.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced the listing in October, but the rule formally took effect on Monday.

"These are the first bees to be federally protected under the [act], so in a way this is a threshold moment," said Xerces Society's Matthew Shepherd. The conservation group first petitioned the federal government to protect yellow-faced bees in 2009.

"Finally, people are taking notice of these insects that generally have been overlooked," Shepherd told Mashable.

The seven bee species are among the 60 types of bees in the genus Hylaeus. The bees are named "yellow-faced" for the golden mark between the males' eyes.

As pollinators, the native bees play a vital role in keeping Hawaii's native plant species alive and thriving. Those plants in turn sustain food chains and nesting habitats throughout the archipelago.

Yet in recent years, Hawaii's expanding urban footprint and the spread of invasive plants and animals have decimated bee colonies. Yellow-faced bees were once the state's most abundant insects. Now they are one of the least observed pollinators on the islands.

If the bee populations don't recover, the insects will have a harder time adapting to effects of climate change like harsher droughts, stronger storms, more frequent wildfires and rising sea levels, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said.

Hylaeus longiceps, a yellow-faced bee species, on Myoporum.

Hylaeus longiceps, a yellow-faced bee species, on Myoporum.

Image: State of Hawaii, Division of Forestry and Wildlife

And if the bees go, the native plant species and the ecosystems they sustain could also perish.

Pollinators are under similar threat on the U.S. mainland.

Bumblebees and honeybees, for instance, have suffered staggering losses in the last decade due to the abundant use of pesticides, the spread of parasites and habitat loss from industrial agriculture and suburban development.

For Hawaii's bees, the endangerment listing is the first of many steps needed to protect the native species, said Shepherd.

The Fish and Wildlife Service's ruling does not designate any "critical habitats," a move that requires federal agencies to protect important characteristics of the designated areas. The government also has not yet developed a "recovery plan" for how the agency will manage and protect the bees.

Hylaeus longiceps, a yellow-faced bee species, on Sesbania.

Hylaeus longiceps, a yellow-faced bee species, on Sesbania.

Image: State of Hawaii, Division of Forestry and Wildlife

Shepherd said Xerces Society, which has studied Hawaii's bees for years, would work to push Fish and Wildlife Service to take these two key measures.

"It's wonderful that [the bees] have this listing, but that doesn't mean that miraculously now they will survive," he said. "We now need to actually protect the bees so that the 'protection' isn't just on a piece of paper."

The yellow-faced bees' track record suggests they still have a fighting chance.

Despite the mounting threats, 11 new native species have been found in Hawaii in the last 15 years. Six of those spcies were from Oahu, the island most heavily impacted by development, Karl Magnacca, a senior researcher at the University of Hawaii, said in a fact sheet.

"The future is uncertain for our native pollinators," Magnacca wrote, "but they have already surprised us with their adaptability and perseverance."

Topics: bees, bumblebees, Climate, conservation, endangered species, Endangered Species Act, hawaii, hawaiian islands, honeybees, native species, pollinators, us fish and wildlife service, World, xerces society, yellow-faced bees

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