The City of Minneapolis is making every effort to demolish the Roof Depot building to construct a public works facility within the habitat of a federally endangered bumble bee. City officials and the courts have ignored environmental protections designed to protect endangered bees and instead are moving ahead with a polluting project that the community has opposed for years. When bee populations are threatened, it puts everyone at risk because pollinators are crucial for food production and ecosystem health.
The community’s vision for an indoor urban farm would not only prevent toxic pollution by avoiding any demolition, years-long construction, and increased traffic pollution, but would provide green space for wildlife and support the survival of this imperiled bee species.
The city seems to assume that doing a project in a developed area means they won’t encounter endangered species, but the endangered Rusty Patched Bumble Bee (RPBB) is found in (and may even prefer) densely populated areas. According to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) maps, the Roof Depot building slated for demolition is within an area designated as “high potential zone”, meaning that the RPBB is likely to be present. In fact, there are documented observations within 1.5 miles of the site. According to the USFWS, if proposed activities have any potential to harm or kill an endangered species within a “high potential zone,” special review is required before a project can proceed. At minimum, this involves meetings with the USFWS to assure less-impactful activities and applications for “take” permits, which are waivers for accidentally hurting or killing an endangered species.
In addition to possible direct harm to bees during construction, this project poses long-term risks to the health of the bees and the humans in the neighboring communities from potential heavy metal contamination and increased traffic. Bees can be exposed to heavy metals through contact with soil for nesting, the adhesion of air pollution to the hairs on their bodies, and through pollen and nectar from plants that accumulate heavy metals. Exposure to arsenic at concentrations found in urban environments can directly kill bumble bees. Soil samples within and near the project site have arsenic concentrations well above the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s safe limit, and at concentrations that could cause harm to nearby people and wildlife.
Increased city vehicle traffic creates an additional risk for endangered bees. The queens, who are single-handedly responsible for creating this year’s colonies, will be coming out of hibernation this spring and are at high risk if they cross paths with this polluting demolition project, or the high-traffic site the City plans to build on it.
City officials have not engaged in legally required steps to mitigate harm. Instead of engaging with the proper federal agencies, the city only consulted a state agency, the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), on whether there were any state-listed endangered species at the site and failed to follow the DNR’s recommendation to consult with the USFWS for any federally listed species that may be present in the area.
In a meeting last summer, the Minneapolis director of Public Works promised the bee would be protected and also claimed that the city would somehow “relocate the bees temporarily” during construction. It is not only illegal to physically move endangered species without USFWS permits, but also impossible given that these bees are small, rare, and difficult to find.
The only formal response from the city about protection for the RPBB was that they said they would plant the “right plants” and have a “water feature” for the bees on an employee patio. Unfortunately, RPBBs that are killed or harmed from the release of toxic pollution or construction activities will be long gone before this vainglorious “bee patio” goes in.
The city should be required to engage in the permitting process given the high likelihood of harming and killing the bee, despite the USFWS’s poor track record protecting RPBB from harm from construction. Additionally, the city should also be required to conduct a full, cumulative Environmental Impact Statement to assess any other potentially damaging impacts this project could cause to the area.
This intentional harm to bees by the city goes against their stated promises in the 2015 “pollinator friendly community” resolution that claims to support pollinator health and local food solutions. Despite the fact that the RPBB is the state bee of Minnesota, it seems both the state and the City are simply using the bee to bolster their image rather than taking action to prevent harm.
It seems that the city will warp or ignore regulatory processes and laws, even if it means intentionally polluting an overburdened community or killing bees on the brink of extinction.
Julia Brokaw is a 6th-year Ph.D. candidate at the University of Minnesota Bee Lab studying wild bee conservation and restoration ecology and also works for the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation. Dr. Elaine Evans is an expert bumble bee researcher whose work focuses on the Rusty Patched Bumble Bee. The opinions stated in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of the authors’ employers.