Editorial: Endangered bee spotting a reminder how much they need our help

In a spring and summer that's been pretty much a downer, a wee bit of good news was found recently on a large patch of bergamot in the Greenbelt Forest Preserve in North Chicago.

A lone rusty patched bumble bee, endangered and rarely seen, was spotted buzzing in the wildflowers.

"It's nice to have something exciting and hopeful in such a challenging year," Lake County Forest Preserve District stewardship ecologist Kelly Schultz told our Mick Zawislak.

Schultz saw the bee recently while on a routine weeding session, and yes, news of her find certainly was a welcome respite from the daily dose of COVID-19 case and positivity rates, the sometimes testy debate over whether schools should open for in-person or remote learning, a hurricane along the East Coast or disasters that kill dozens and injure thousands of people.

But the sighting does have value beyond the warmth of a much-needed smiley face. Schultz's discovery is significant because it buoys hopes that habitat restoration efforts to provide healthy woodlands, grass and tallgrass prairies might just pay off and help sustain a species whose population has declined 95% in recent decades.

That's critical. Bees are among other insects and animals that serve as pollinators - they transfer pollen from one flower to another, and pollen is the essential to the lives of plants. Pollinators' work is necessary for wildflowers to create seeds and reproduce and for bushes and trees to produce that feed wildlife and humans. They are a "keystone species" in a functioning ecosystems.

Valerie Blaine, the nature programs manager for the Forest Preserve District of Kane County who writes a nature column for the Daily Herald, recently described bumble bees as the primary pollinators of multibillion-dollar crops like tomatoes, potatoes and eggplant.

But pollinators have been at risk for many years due to a host of factors ranging from pests and habitat loss to reduced nesting sites and pesticide exposure. Once common from the Dakotas to Maine, the rusty patched bumble bee now is considered threatened. Three years ago, it became the first pollinator protected under the federal Endangered Species Act - one of 303 invertebrate animals on that list. Experts say there are a few active bands of the bee from Chicago to the Twin Cities but not much else, hence the importance of several groups working on restoration efforts, including those in Lake County.

Such efforts aren't limited to forest preserve districts. Lake County authorities point out that anyone can help. You can contribute by planting native wildflowers and plants, avoiding or limiting the use of insecticides, pesticides and chemical fertilizers and contributing to a citizen science tracking program like BeeSpotter or Bumble Bee Watch.

Think about it. It could mean even more good news for the rusty patched bumble bee, other pollinators and our very environment.

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