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Climate and Environment

Is A Bee A Fish? Why California's Dwindling Bee Populations May Get New Legal Protections

A yellow sign reads "Warning ahead" with illustrations of three bees.
Bumblebees have seen significant reductions in their populations. A state appeals ruling paves the way for four species to get greater protections.
Getty Images/iStockphoto)
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A legal pathway has been paved to protect California's dwindling bee populations. A state appeals court ruling allows four species of bumblebee — the Crotch bumblebee, the Franklin bumblebee, the Suckley cuckoo bumblebee, and the Western bumblebee — to be added to the state's endangered species list.

At issue? The slightly odd sounding question of whether a bee can be considered a fish under California's endangered species act.

The Almond Alliance of California had sued to block the addition of the bumblebee species to the endangered list in 2019, arguing they did not qualify. A lower court agreed. Then late last month, a state appeals court reversed that decision, saying that the state's Fish and Game Commission did have the authority to list invertebrates that did not live in water.

Here's how the appeals court laid it out:

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"The issue presented here is whether the bumble bee, a terrestrial invertebrate, falls within the definition of fish, as that term is used in the definitions of endangered species... More specifically, we must determine whether the Commission exceeded its statutorily delegated authority when it designated four bumble bee species as candidate species under consideration for listing as endangered species."

Ultimately, the appeals court determined that the word "fish" in this context was not literal. More from the decision:

"Although the term fish is colloquially and commonly understood to refer to aquatic species, the term of art employed by the Legislature in the definition of fish in section 45 is not so limited."

In other words, in this instance, yes, a bumblebee can be considered a "fish" because lawmakers had previously determined that a broader interpretation was already allowed.

Why? According to a National Law Review analysis: That conclusion was based on the finding that "the Commission 'already had the authority to list invertebrates' under Cal. ESA' and had previously listed three invertebrates as endangered or rare animals.”

Terrestrial mollusks (think snails), for instance, which are terrestrial vertebrates, received protection in 1984. Because of this, bees, also non-aquatic vertebrates, had the historical legal backing to sprout their own scales of legislative protection.

Boris Baer of UC Riverside's Center for Integrative Bee Research describes the ruling as a major breakthrough.

"They are important for food production, but they're also really important for what we will call ecosystem stability or ecosystem health," Baer said.

He notes these bumblebees and other pollinators play a role in the growth of crops that are high in vitamins.

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"So it's not only that we produce food," he said, "we also produce healthy foods. So it has a direct impact on human health.

For instance, Baer previously told us that in the Central Valley, where 80% of global almond production takes place, "we need about 1.2 million hives each year just to pollinate these trees."

Crotch's bumblebee, for example, was "once ubiquitous" throughout Central California and is now "absent from much of its historic range," according to advocacy group Los Padres Forestwatch.

"The species has experienced a relative abundance decline of almost 98% over the last decade," the group reports.

Baer says pollinators of all kinds are on the decline but this ruling sets in motion steps to hopefully save them from extinction.

What questions do you have about Southern California?

Updated June 6, 2022 at 4:07 PM PDT
This story was updated with additional context about the ruling.