Thursday, August 5, 2010

Bumble Bees and Bureaucrats

Photo by Derrick Ditchburn
“Is it legal to import bumble bees to Oregon?”  It is a question that comes up a couple of times a year, so I wasn’t surprised when I received an email query about importing bumble bees last week. My stock response is, “What species?”  Usually the answer is Bombus impatiens (eastern bumble bee), a species native to North America, but not Oregon or the other western states. This species is commonly sold for pollination of greenhouse crops. “Sorry,” I respond, “that species is not on our approved list.”

This time though, the question was not about a single species, and it came from the Xerces Society, a group dedicated to invertebrate conservation. They were interested in clarification of Oregon’s regulations relative to bumble bees.

I dusted off my file; here is the story. A decade ago, the US Department of Agriculture stopped requiring permits for interstate movement of bumble bees. At the time there were two species in commerce, one from the East (eastern bumble bee, B. impatiens) and one from the West (western bumble bee, B. occidentalis). The supplying company discontinued the western species after a disease problem developed in their colonies. The Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA) struggled with the issue of whether to allow eastern bumble bee in as a replacement; all the other western states shrugged their shoulders and opened the gate. One courtesy permit was issued in Oregon in 2002 with some very strict safeguards to prevent escape. OSU’s wild bee expert at the time, Dr. Bill Stephens, advised us not to continue this practice because of the threat of disease introduction.

About the time the eastern bumble bee began to be shipped to the West, the natural population of western bumble bee crashed. It hasn’t recovered since. There is no proof that these two phenomena are related, but the timing is suspicious. Imported eastern bumble bees could have brought a disease with them that impacted the native species.

Given the potential consequences, ODA decided to say “No” to future requests, however, there was a catch. ODA’s authority to regulate insects has always been expressly for “plant pests.”  Bumble bees, lady bugs, and butterflies don’t fit the profile, so we developed a policy of referring people to an “approved list” of common species that are native and already here:
People are free to import and release these common, non-harmful species. This policy has worked well for years even though it doesn’t have the force of law.

Last year our authority changed. ODA worked with the legislature to update Oregon’s plant quarantine laws. The definition of plant pest now includes “any biotic agent . . .capable of having a significant adverse effect on the environmental quality of the state, or of causing a significant level of economic damage . . .”  This fall, ODA will be converting our approved list to an actual regulation. From now on, when someone asks, “Is it legal to import bumble bees?” the response will be the same, but the authority behind it will be different.

A footnote to this story: eastern bumble bee isn’t the only non-native species people have wanted to release in Oregon. We’ve had inquiries about fuzzy-footed bee, Anthophora plumipes and horn-faced bee, Osmia cornifrons, (both from Japan). Both have been released elsewhere. Neither is approved here. Oregon already has a diverse native bee fauna, and there is no compelling reason to augment it with non-native species that might do more harm than good.

Oregonians should appreciate the native bees we have -- they do a fantastic job of pollination in spite of Oregon’s cool, cloudy spring weather. Every spring I worry when my fruit trees bloom, there just doesn’t seem to be much weather suitable for bees. When flowers appear on my summer lilac (Ceonothus), the native bees show up in force, and I’m reminded that Oregon’s bees are adapted to Oregon conditions. They do just fine, without help from foreigners.

Dan Hilburn

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this blog! I landscape with pollinators in mind, and appreciate learning more about natives and non-natives' interaction.

    Vern Holm