Map of Washington state, with gold, light orange and dark orange ecoregions delineated, with small key in bottom left. On white background.

Washington State Becomes First To Adopt A Statewide Strategy To Protect Bumble Bees

Originally posted on the Xerces Society’s blog on February 23, 2023
By Molly Martin on 23. February 2023

Washington has just become the first state in the United States to develop a statewide strategy to conserve bumble bees. Research has shown significant declines in native pollinators globally, and unfortunately bumble bees are no exception. In response to these declines, partners convened in Washington state to address the issue head-on, creating a strategy led by the Xerces Society in partnership with the US Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, US Fish and Wildlife Service, and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Washington’s conservation strategy focuses on eight state and federally recognized bumble bee species: frigid bumble bee (Bombus frigidus), golden-belted bumble bee (B. kirbiellus), Morrison bumble bee (B. morrisoni), western bumble bee (B. occidentalis), Suckley cuckoo bumble bee (B. suckleyi), half-black bumble bee (B. vagans), yellow bumble bee (B. fervidus), and American bumble bee (B. pensylvanicus). Additionally, other bumble bee species and pollinators will benefit from recommendations included in this strategy.

Golden-belted bumble bee on paintbrush flowerThe golden-belted bumble bee (Bombus kirbiellus) is considered a sensitive species in Washington by the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. Pictured here on paintbrush (castilleja sp.) in north central Washington. (Photo: Xerces Society / Rich Hatfield.)

Bumble bees are a key to ecosystem health, but their future is threatened

Bumble bees are important pollinators in a variety of ecosystems and landscapes, from rural to urban, and agricultural to natural areas. Bumble bee species number about 250 globally, 50 in North America, and nearly 30 in the Pacific Northwest. Bumble bees provide essential ecosystem services by pollinating wild and cultivated plants. While factors leading to declines in bumble bee populations are not fully understood, contributing factors include habitat loss and fragmentation, impacts from pesticides, exposure to pathogens, competition from managed bees, and climate change. 

Protecting imperiled bumble bee species is essential to their long-term survival and the ecosystems of which they are a part. This will require strategically protecting, restoring, and enhancing habitat upon which bumble bees rely for foraging, nesting, and overwintering. It also requires ensuring connectivity between habitat areas and across jurisdictions. Concurrently, we need to protect bumble bees from a range of stressors and threats and improve land management in ways that will provide opportunities for bumble bees to thrive.

Patch of lupine flowers
Taking steps to protect, restore, and enhance habitat is critical to ensuring the persistence of bumble bee species and populations. Native plants like these lupine (Lupinus sp.) provide valuable nectar and pollen to bumble bees and other native pollinators. This photo was taken on Bureau of Land Management property east of Goldendale, WA. (Photo: BLM / Greg Shine.)

Washington state’s bumble bee plan is possible thanks to volunteer community scientists

Creating Washington’s strategy has largely been made possible by data collected as part of the Pacific Northwest Bumble Bee Atlas, a collaborative community science effort that began in 2018 to track and conserve the bumble bees of Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. The project is increasing our understanding of bumble bee populations and their habitat needs, allowing Washington to develop customized, actionable management recommendations based on real data.  

Temporarily paralyzed western bumble bee laying on a white surface during a bumble bee survey, with aster flowers also present
The western bumble bee (Bombus occidentalis), one of the focal species of the conservation strategy, is currently under review for listing under the Endangered Species Act. This specimen was collected on western mountain aster (Symphyotrichum spathulatum) at a site on the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest south of Cle Elum and photographed as part of the Pacific Northwest Bumble Bee Atlas. After recording information about the bee it was released, unharmed. (Photo: Ed Lisowski.)

Bumble Bee Atlas data helped Washington identify priority areas for the conservation of eight bumble bee species, and will allow managers to quickly identify potential threats, existing land cover, and land ownership/management status for each area. The wealth of information and tools in this strategy will also allow users to easily tailor its recommendations to their specific property or project, across many different habitat types. 

Map of Washington state showing the probability that the focal bumble bees are present in those regions. High probability translates to high conservation priority. Highest priority areas tend to be toward the eastern part of the state, with some variation.
Level IV ecoregions within Washington, showing conservation priority. High priority ecoregions (shown in red) have the highest mean probability of presence for all eight focal bumble bee species of the conservation strategy. Probability of presence for each species was determined by modeling species distribution based on data from 2011 through 2021. The Washington Bumble Bee Conservation Strategy recommends prioritizing active management and restoration of habitat for bumble bees of conservation concern in the highest priority ecoregions, pictured above, and provides specific management recommendations.

Developing Washington’s strategy has been an exciting opportunity to pull together existing knowledge and lay out clear steps for land managers. It closes the circle between scientific research and on-the-ground conservation, at a scale with the potential to spark substantial positive change for bumble bees.

During this critical time for protecting our planet’s biodiversity, Washington state has stepped forward as a leader in bumble bee conservation, inspiring its leaders, land managers, residents, and  (we hope!) other states to do their part to protect some of nature’s most essential wildlife. 

Learn more about Washington’s imperiled bumble bees and explore tools to conserve them by reading the Strategy to Protect State and Federally Recognized Bumble Bee Species of Conservation Concern in Washington State. Later in 2023, Xerces will publish an interactive online map to accompany the publication.


Molly Martin
Endangered Species Conservation Biologist – Pacific Northwest
The Xerces Society
Molly is a conservation biologist focused on the conservation of bumble bees and other invertebrate species in the Pacific Northwest. Molly’s experience ranges from research, restoration, and conservation planning to outreach and education. Before joining the Endangered Species team, Molly ran Xerces’ Bee City USA and Bee Campus US

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