Editor's Note: On January 10, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designated the rusty-patched bumblebee as "endangered."

The life of a bumble bee is short on days, but its life’s work for mankind is immeasurable.

Hundreds of late-season crops, from tomatoes to cranberries, rely on these native insects when other pollinators have ended their work with the decline of the summer sun.

Now one species, the rusty-patched bumble bee, is in trouble. More than 90 percent of its population has disappeared. As a result, it may become the first bee in the continental United States to draw protection under the Endangered Species Act.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has proposed listing the bee as “endangered,” a designation that would likely impact construction and maintenance of power lines, substations, and other utility infrastructure, says Janelle Lemen, NRECA’s senior principal on Endangered Species Act, avian, and land management issues.

Since these bees nest underground and in clumps of grass, limits could be placed on mowing, spraying, re-vegetation, and other ground-disturbing activities in utility rights-of-way, she says.

Once abuzz in more than half the country, from the Upper Midwest and New England down to Georgia, rusty patched bumble bees now exist in only 12 states, according to the USFWS. The bee’s shrinking population is primarily linked to the loss and degradation of habitat that has diverse sources of pollen and nectar.

“NRECA has concerns that [the bee’s] listing may conflict with the electric cooperatives’ obligations to provide safe, reliable power to rural America,” NRECA said in comments filed with the USFWS on November 21.

NRECA recommended the USFWS carefully consider how listing the bumble bee may conflict with utility right-of-way maintenance requirements, noting that as many as 207 distribution cooperatives and G&Ts within the bumble bee’s current range could be impacted by the bee’s listing, NRECA said.

“If vegetation management is restricted, these rights-of-way may violate reliability standards or jeopardize the safety of electric cooperative employees and the public,” Lemen said.

Pollinator Prairies

The struggles of pollinator species like the rusty patched bumble bee have led many co-ops to take action to protect them, redeveloping rights-of-way and other properties as “pollinator prairies.”

Over the past 10 years, Maple Grove, Minn.-based Great River Energy has restored about 200 acres of its lands with native vegetation favored by wildlife, bees, monarch butterflies, and hummingbirds.

The 28-member G&T has also undertaken a partnership with the city of Elk River and the Minnesota Department of Transportation to re-establish prairie habitat at its Elk River Station power plant. In addition, the entities will work with Three Rivers Park District to plant native vegetation under a new transmission line south of the Twin Cities. The co-op also sponsors school projects where students plant pollinator-friendly milkweed, wild bergamot, fragrant giant hyssop, and Lindley’s aster.

“Our transmission and environmental folks are developing pollinator habitat where it makes sense, at substations and transmission rights-of-way,” says Lori Buffington, communications leader at Great River Energy. “We don’t know how an endangered species listing [for a pollinator species] might affect how we maintain our rights-of-way, but it’s important to consider how changes could impact cost to members.”

Buffington says such projects also uphold the cooperative principles of concern for community and education, training, and information.

“Cooperatives are integral in their communities. They can organize people. They can help teachers educate or maybe ask a local business if they’d like to sponsor a planting,” she says. “That alone is a contribution.”

Similarly, in North Carolina’s Sandhills region, a G&T’s right-of-way will soon become a “butterfly highway.”

The low-growing pollinator-friendly plants the co-op sowed under its transmission lines in the fall should begin to bloom in spring of 2017, says Richard McCall, North Carolina Electric Membership Corporation’s (NCEMC) director of environmental and transmission compliance.

McCall said an endangered designation for the rusty patched bumble bee won’t affect NCEMC because it doesn’t live in their region, but the “butterfly highway” project “definitely has benefits for other native pollinator species that may inhabit the area. We felt this was a good way to do our part.”