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What is the Value of a Species?

Let’s be honest, these are challenging times to be a conservationist, animal lover, nature fan, outdoorsman…a human. No matter the label, one thing that we all share in common is a desire to feel wonder: a wonder that often arises from experiences in the natural world.

Somehow, just knowing that incredible creatures are out there, moving through landscapes that revolve unperceivably slowly on their own dials, without regard or subservience to man’s hand, connects us to something deeper. It allows us to believe that it will all be okay. That life was here before, and so will it be in the future. Eternity.

As such, it somehow seems like a sacrilege to validate the worthiness of nature—of a species—by weights and measures, dollars and cents. Too often we impatiently demand to know what good it does for us, the conquerors, the victors, to whom the spoils go daily. As if a row of decimal points could ever serve as the demarcation line between gold and garbage, your own mother on auction like a prize pig at the county fair.

© Clay Bolt

I first discovered the rusty-patched bumble bee in a box on a museum shelf at Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I was there to look at the spectral array of bees that were native to the region. While I quickly scanned the collection like an eager child on Christmas morning, Becky Nichols, the park entomologist, drew my attention to one species that hadn’t been seen in the Smokies for years.

It wasn’t flashy or particularly outstanding in appearance. Even amongst bumble bees it seemed rather dull and unassuming. Only a hint of a fading rusty band, an oxidized kiss of orange on its abdomen, gave a clue to the origin of its common name. It was a species that was once abundant throughout the eastern US and into the upper Midwest, but then it wasn’t; nearly winking out before most people even knew it existed.

There was a stuffed passenger pigeon in the same room, staring off into space with its glass eyes. This was once the most numerous bird on the continent, but we eliminated it before we even suspected such a thing was possible. I wondered if the rusty-patched bumble bee, like the passenger pigeon, was another ghost in the making.

It was at that moment that I knew that I had to see a living rusty-patched bumble bee. I wanted to hear the deep thrum of its wings and know, really know, what it was like to behold its presence. If there was ever a precious natural commodity, this was the currency that held the most value to me. This pivotal moment sent me off along the path of an incredibly journey, which culminated in many unexpected, insightful experiences, and a short film that will hopefully give others a sense of what we stand to lose if this species fades into extinction.

© Clay Bolt
© Clay Bolt

In the film, University of Wisconsin entomologist Dr. Claudio Gratton sites a provocative paper that looks at the economic value of native bees. Pollination services are often used as a reason to protect bees and other native pollinators. However, this paper suggests that a core group of bees are responsible for the majority of crop pollination. We have nearly 4,000 species of native bees in North America, none of which are protected under the Endangered Species Act. If crop pollination is our only justification for which species get graced with our approval to continue to exist, what happens to those that have no obvious value to us? Perhaps, as Dr. Gratton so elegantly puts it, this says more about how we value life in general than anything else.

© Clay Bolt

If you’d like to speak up for the protection rusty-patched bumble, a species that has declined 87 percent in the past 15 years, please consider signing our petition requesting that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service place it under the care of the Endangered Species Act.

We spend so much time and effort trying to make life better for ourselves. The least we can do is make life possible for this bee.

Learn more at www.rustypatched.com.

Clay Bolt holds a Coast Garter Snake at Tennessee Valley, Golden Gate National Recreation Area, California. Photo © Neil Losin / Day’s Edge Productions

Clay Bolt is a Natural History and Conservation Photographer specializing in the world’s smaller creatures. He regularly partners with organizations such as the National Geographic Society, National Wildlife Federation, and the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation. He is an Associate Fellow in the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP), president-elect of the North American Nature Photography Association (NANPA), and co-founder (2009) of the international nature and biodiversity photography project, Meet Your Neighbours. His current major focus is on North America’s native bees and the important roles that they play in our lives. Clay lives in Bozeman, Montana where he is the communications lead for WWF’s Northern Great Plains Program. Visit www.claybolt.com to learn more.


  1. Clay Bolt
    July 2, 2016, 11:12 pm

    Thank you, Martin! Hope all is well.

  2. Martin Werr
    United States
    July 1, 2016, 9:24 pm

    Clay, thank you for this stirring and inspired film.