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The Buzz

The Plight of the Rusty Patched Bumble Bee




(A rusty patched bumble bee. Photo of Bombus affinis by Johanna James-Heinz, uploaded to BeeSpotter at the University of Illinois)

For one local species, the "Flight of the Bumblebee" has become the plight of the bumblebee.

That's because the rusty patched bumble bee was the first bee in the continental United States to be declared an endangered species, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

While the bee used to be common across 28 states in the northern half of the United States stretching from Connecticut to South Dakota as well as two Canadian provinces, its population has fallen sharply — about 87 percent since the late 1990s, the Fish and Wildlife Service reports. Today, the bee is found in only 13 states and one Canadian province.

Illinois is one of the states where this bumblebee is still found, but it is rare and found only in isolated populations, according to the University of Illinois' BeeSpotter program. Locally, the rusty patched bumble bee was established to be present in Will County last summer, when it was discovered at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, said Dave Robson, the Forest Preserve District's natural resource management supervisor. 

Several factors have contributed to the sharp decline in the population of the rusty patched bumble bee, including habitat loss; intensive farming; diseases and parasites; the use of pesticides; and climate change, the Fish and Wildlife Service reports. These bees once thrived in the open prairie and grasslands across Illinois and the upper Midwest and Northeast, but most of that habitat is now gone.

Conservation of these and other bees is important because bees are pollinators, which makes them crucial to the health of ecosystems. Pollinators include bees, butterflies, birds and bats that pollinate plants, including wildflowers and agricultural crops, by carrying pollen from plant to plant in their search for nectar.

Bumblebees are particularly effective pollinators and are important for many common crops, including blueberries and cranberries. They are almost the only pollinator of tomatoes, the Fish and Wildlife Service reports. The economic value of the pollination services provided by bees and other insects is estimated at $3 billion per year in the United States alone.

Because of its endangered status, sightings of the rusty patched bumble bee are important and can help lead to habitat restoration work locally. Bumblebees can be difficult to identify in the wild because many species look similar, but finding dead bees is helpful because they are more easily identified that way, Robson said. 

Dead bumblebees found within the preserves can be useful in establishing whether the rusty patched bumble bee or other species are within our communities, so collecting these bee specimens helps forest preserve staff. Robson said they'll be keeping an eye out for dead bumblebees while out in the preserves and will gladly take any specimens the public finds in the preserves as well.

"The more data we have, the more informed we are," he said.

If you do find a dead bumblebee, collect and freeze the specimen in order to preserve it, then email Robson at drobson@fpdwc.org.

Robson said establishing that the rusty patched bumble bee is in Will County will allow the Forest Preserve District to receive grants for habitat restoration as part of the recovery effort. That work would involve grassland restoration to bring land back to its natural and native state, which would include the plants the bumblebees visit in their search for food, which also results in pollination.

While work is being done at the federal level to protect and restore the habitat of the rusty patched bumble bee and other pollinators, there are also steps you can take at home to conserve these populations. Consider planting a garden or flowering trees or shrubs in your yard to provide a source of pollen and nectar for bees, the Fish and Wildlife Service suggests.

And when planting, look for native plants rather than non-native or invasive species. Native plants are acclimated to the soil and climate here, which means they require less care and maintenance.

Including some natural areas in your yard is also beneficial. Many bumblebees nest in the ground, so providing undisturbed soil along with unmowed or brushy areas can be helpful. Lastly, avoid using pesticides, herbicides or chemical fertilizers in your yard, or limit their use as much as possible, because they can be lethal for bees and other beneficial insects.

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