A California judge ruled this week that bees can now be legally defined as “fish” under a state conservation law, but they’re still biologically bees (obviously).
The decision comes from California’s Third District Court of Appeal, which ruled on Tuesday that the California Endangered Species Act can protect bees. In 2020, the Sacramento County Superior Court ruled that the California Fish and Game Commission could not list invertebrates (like bees) under the California Endangered Species Act, also known as CESA. The Stanford Environmental Law Clinic represented three conservation groups—the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, the Center for Food Safety, and Defenders of Wildlife—that sought to challenge the 2020 decision.
“We are celebrating today’s decision that insects and other invertebrates are eligible for protection under CESA,” said Sarina Jepsen, the Xerces Society’s Director of Endangered Species in a press release. “The Court’s decision allows California to protect some of its most endangered pollinators, a step which will contribute to the resilience of the state’s native ecosystems and farms.”
The CESA is a part of the larger California Fish and Game Code, the latter which defines a fish in Section 45 as “a wild fish, mollusk, crustacean, invertebrate, amphibian, or part, spawn, or ovum of any of those animals.” The code’s definition of fish creates an opportunity where bees can be legally classified as fish since bees are invertebrates. Section 2, meanwhile, explicitly states that “the definitions in this chapter govern the construction of this code and all regulations adopted under this code,” meaning that fish—as defined in the Fish and Game Code—can be protected under CESA, Matthew J. Sanders from the Stanford Environmental Law Clinic explained to us over the phone.
“CESA is one of the important tools we have to protect and restore endangered species. The court’s ruling, which is grounded in the California Legislature’s plain words and intent, ensures that CESA will fulfill its purpose of conserving ‘any endangered species’ by protecting the full range of California’s biodiversity, including terrestrial invertebrates,” said Sam Joyce from the Stanford Environmental Law Clinic.
As pollinators, bees play a hugely important role in Earth’s ecosystem, pollinating everything from blueberries to avocados to agave. Bee populations are also on the decline, threatening their pivotal role as pollinators, but this legal win for wildlife conservation helps to secure the protection of certain species in an incredibly creative way.