chevron-down Created with Sketch Beta.



A California court decision—bees are fish—shines new light on the biodiversity crisis

Matthew J Sanders


  • Addresses how bumble bees are technically protected in the California Endangered Species Act as the it protects “invertebrates” as “fish.”
  • Discusses the climate change crisis as a contributor to plummeting biodiversity.
  • Explains how the costs of protecting imperiled insects like bumble bees are far lower than the costs of driving them to extinction.
A California court decision—bees are fish—shines new light on the biodiversity crisis
Monica Fecke via Getty Images

Jump to:

In September, the California Supreme Court left in place a lower-court decision holding that bees are fish—at least for the purpose of protecting them under California’s endangered species law. Public-interest environmental lawyers, including the clinical students I teach at Stanford Law School, are accustomed to working in the shadows behind the clients and causes we serve. But this case, on which many of my students tirelessly worked, has stolen the spotlight. Celebrated in the environmental community, criticized by industry, dissected by legal scholars, and alternately lauded and ridiculed in social media posts, the decision that bumble bees and other terrestrial invertebrates may be listed as “threatened” or “endangered” under the California Endangered Species Act seems like a sea change in environmental law.

It is and it isn’t. Let’s start with how it isn’t, which means starting with the decision itself (-- Cal. Rptr. 3d --,2022 WL 437847 (May 31, 2022)). When California’s Third District Court of Appeal ruled in Almond Alliance v. California Fish & Game Commission in May of this year, the press and the public seized on the obvious, and admittedly amusing, storyline that “bees are fish,” often followed by various versions of “only in California . . . .” But the Almond Alliance decision doesn’t actually say that. In fact, it rejects that notion—that whether state law protects terrestrial invertebrates like bumble bees turns on common or even scientific understandings of “bees” or “fish.” The decision instead explains that whether the four species of California native bumble bees at issue in the case should be listed as “endangered” turns on what the law says. The California Endangered Species Act, passed in its current form in 1984, protects any native “bird, mammal, fish, amphibian, reptile, or plant” that is at risk of extinction. Cal. Fish & Game Code §§ 2062, 2067, 2068. And California law defines “fish” to mean “a wild fish, mollusk, crustacean, invertebrate, amphibian, or part, spawn, or ovum of any of those animals.” Id. § 45. Accordingly, the California Endangered Species Act protects “invertebrates” as “fish.”

I’ll be the first to admit that protecting “bees” as “fish” is not a legislature legislating at its finest. When the California Supreme Court declined to take the case, the chief justice and two associate justices took note of the “clear disconnect” between the Court of Appeal’s legal conclusion and “common knowledge.” Moreover, some legal scholars point out that the other kinds of animals protected under the definition of “fish” are often associated with aquatic environments. (There are good responses to these and other points, and the Supreme Court and Court of Appeal discuss many of them in their decisions.) In any event, the California Supreme Court thought the case was unworthy of review; the Court of Appeal employed long-settled legal doctrines to fairly interpret a single provision in a single law.

Where this case really matters is outside the law. We hear most often about global climate change, but that crisis overshadows and contributes to another one: plummeting biodiversity. A 2019 United Nations report (with a much shorter summary) estimates that one-quarter of the Earth’s animals and plants are threatened, with 13 percent of known species facing extinction. That rate is tens to hundreds of times higher than the average extinction rate over the past ten million years. According to the World Wildlife Fund, vertebrate populations have declined by nearly 70 percent since 1970. As for insects, which make up three-quarters of all the world’s living species, the estimates of their decline range from 10 to 90-plus percent depending on the species. The real figures may be much worse.

In the meantime, and likely for the long term, we also need laws that can step in when other efforts aren’t working. Now, following the Almond Alliance decision, there is no doubt that California law can serve that purpose. (The federal Endangered Species Act also protects insects, but state laws like California’s can provide additional protections.) Expressly making imperiled terrestrial invertebrates eligible for protection under state endangered species laws will help provide this additional, necessary level of protection. State and local agencies will have to consider how approvals for development and other projects may affect the most vulnerable insects, and those undertaking activities that could jeopardize such insects will have to take measures to avoid driving them closer to extinction. Endangered species laws also often unlock resources aimed at helping failing species recover instead of just survive.

Many are understandably concerned about the consequences of formally listing insects for legal protection. Laws add process, and process adds cost. Endangered species laws also restrict what people can do in places where listed species are present. But Almond Alliance doesn’t portend a future in which every homeowner has to get a permit to mow their lawn. First, and most important, legal protections are available only for species that are at risk of disappearing forever. In California, a species must be (or be likely to become) in “serious danger” of extinction to warrant legal protection. Most species that meet this high threshold exist in vanishingly small areas and numbers—meaning there just aren’t that many of them. Second, collaborative, voluntary conservation measures to change existing practices can go a long way toward avoiding the need for regulation. Third, legal protections should and typically do kick in only where voluntary measures don’t materialize or aren’t sufficient. Finally, it takes less money than you might think to protect endangered species—just one percent of the value of the food Americans waste each year would provide sufficient funding to recover all of the species listed under the federal Endangered Species Act. And if federal and state wildlife agencies currently lack the resources or expertise to deal with insect declines, that’s a reason to do more, not less.

The costs of protecting imperiled insects like bumble bees are far lower than the costs of driving them to extinction. Insects are, as the biologist E. O. Wilson observed, “the little things that run the world.” Forty years ago, the California Legislature heeded this wisdom, recognizing that we need animals without backbones and that they need us. If it takes a few jokes about California, Bumblebee tuna, and Finding Beemo to spread that message, so be it. We ignore insects’ and other invertebrates’ fate at risk to our own.