February 11, 2015

The Blue Calamintha bee can survive with our help, or disappear without it.

As Valentine’s Day approaches, many of our thoughts turn to bouquets of flowers and cards quoting the love sonnets of Shakespeare. But, perhaps in the spirit of this season we might be wise to stop for a moment and consider the little workers of the natural world – in particular, native bees and other wild pollinators – that make many of those floral bouquets possible. Sadly, beset with habitat loss, introduced diseases, and indiscriminately lethal new pesticides, the future for native wild bees is far from rosy. But here at Defenders we are trying to show our little bee friends a bit of love.Blue calamintha bee, © Tim Lethbridge

It is not easy to get people to care about the fate of “bugs.” Though eminent scientists like Harvard’s E.O. Wilson, will quickly tell us that without “bugs and weeds,” the little things that make the world go round, human life would quickly perish. This is the essential lesson of protecting “biodiversity,” the intricate tapestry of life in all its forms – including the bugs we take for granted. As the scientists explain, when we start to pull threads from the tapestry, things begin to unravel in unanticipated ways.

The case for protecting wild bees is fairly easy to make. By pollinating flowers, fruit trees and crops, bees do important work that humanity depends upon. Many types of food we enjoy actually depend on native bees, and their buzzing style of pollination. Unlike other pollinators, when native bees enter a flower they vibrate, jarring lose pollen that sticks to their hairy little bodies and is then transported to other flowers. For example, tomatoes do not attract honey bees (a non-native European import to North America), and require wild native bees for efficient pollination. Blueberries, cranberries, and potatoes also depend heavily on the buzz pollination of native bees. While people might not notice the decline in native bee species, they would certainly bemoan the loss of these items from grocery store shelves. This role that bees play in our ecosystems and economies is why Defenders has identified them as a conservation priority.

This month we’re petitioning the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to add the Blue Calamintha bee, Osmia calaminthae, to the list of threatened and endangered species protected by the Endangered Species Act – our nation’s most powerful tool to protect all species great and small. The Blue Calamintha bee lives only in a small area in Florida, the Lake Wales Ridge. This sliver of land in central Florida once existed as an island archepelago when sea levels where much higher than they are today. Due to its ancient origin and prior isolation, this area contains many unique species, including the Blue Calamintha bee, found nowhere else on earth.

Today, the Lake Wales Ridge, and thus the Blue Calamintha bee, are under intense pressure from real estate development and agriculture – Florida’s ubitutious orange groves. The region’s citrus growers use pesticides and herbicides on their crops. These pollutants drift into the remaining pockets of native scrub habitat and can kill the bee as well as the only plant on which it feeds– a small flowering shrub known as the Ashe’s Calamint. Housing developments also destroy the bee’s native Florida scrub habitat. Experts agree that the Blue Calamintha bee is critically imperiled and that its host plant, Ashe’s Calamint, is vulnerable to extinction. We’re asking the Fish and Wildlife Service act on this information and give the bee and its habitat the legal protection they deserve.

Calamintha_ashei, © USFS

Though his sonnets are more common this time of year, another of the Bard’s works seems particularly appropriate. With a slight entomological tweak, Shakespeare’s famous phrase from Hamlet perfectly captures the crises facing wild bees today – to “bee” or not to “bee” that is the question. Our native bees are struggling to survive. Will we change our behavior to let them live? Defenders’ Endangered Species Act listing petition for the Blue Calamintha Bee is part of the answer. We need to protect wild bees, and by doing so protect the things that increase our quality of life and our environment.

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