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Tiny But Mighty - An Imperiled Bee Could Make Big Impact On Mojave Ecosystem

Photo by Zach Portman, Department of Entomology, University of Minnesota.

Mojave poppy bee

Bee populations around the world are declining for a variety of reasons - habitat loss, pesticides and climate change.  

Now a bee species native to the Mojave desert might be added to the federal list of endangered species. 

If that happens, the Mojave poppy bee would be the first native bee that doesn’t live in a colony to be added to that list. 

Tara Cornelisse is an entomologist with the Center for Biological Diversity, which has petitioned the federal government to protect the bee.  

She told KNPR's State of Nevada that the bee used to be found from southeast California all the way up to St. George, Utah, but a recent survey shows that is changing.

“The bee is no longer found in Utah, unfortunately, now we’re looking at only about seven sites that we know of, of this bee in Clark County," she said.

Unlike other bees that live in hives and create honey, the Mojave poppy bee is a solitary insect that creates a burrow, puts balls of pollen in it and then lays its eggs on the pollen balls.

In addition, it lives exclusively on pollen from the dwarf bear poppy found in Utah and the Las Vegas bear poppy found in Clark County.

“These bees are only found where there are more dense patches of the Las Vegas bear poppy and so that is their only host plant that they’re using in these areas and so they all need to be near wherever there are many Las Vegas bear poppies,” she said.

Cornelisse said loss of habitat is one of the main reasons there has been a decline in bee population. She said it is a cycle - poppy habitat is disturbed, there are fewer bees to pollinate the plant and both species see a decline in numbers.

“The poppies are able to be pollinated by a few other desert bees. None do such a good job as the Mojave poppy bee and so as a result of the Mojave poppy bee being gone from Utah, for instance, Fish and Wildlife Service have said that is part of the reason that the dwarf bear poppy is declining further now even though it is protected is because of the loss of this pollinator mutualism that It has with the Mojave poppy bee,” she said.

Cornelisse said the Center for Biological Diversity is concerned about a proposal by Clark County to open 300,000 additional acres of federal land for development.

The center is also concerned about a plan by the Bureau of Land Management to allow expansion of a gypsum mine near two of the seven last known bee sites.

Cornelisse said getting the bee listed as endangered will give conservationists a 'regulatory hammer' to protect and restore critical habitat.

“Getting this species listed is the only way that you can get at the federal formal protections that it deserves," she said, "Once you get that species listed you have the leverage then to do more actions." 

Climate change is also having an impact, Cornelisse said.

Climate change is causing more extreme heat and precipitation in the Mojave Desert, which is causing the bee and the poppy to get out of sync. The poppy blooms with more precipitation but the bee may not emerge when the poppy is blooming because it doesn't respond as quickly to changes in temperature and moisture.

And higher nighttime temperatures can hurt the bees' development causing smaller bees and less reproduction.

Tara Cornelisse, entomologist, Center for Biological Diversity 

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Prior to taking on the role of Broadcast Operations Manager in January 2021, Rachel was the senior producer of KNPR's State of Nevada program for 6 years. She helped compile newscasts and provided coverage for and about the people of Southern Nevada, as well as major events such as the October 1 shooting on the Las Vegas strip, protests of racial injustice, elections and more. Rachel graduated with a bachelor's degree of journalism and mass communications from New Mexico State University.