Lake County ecologist stumbles upon an endangered bumblebee at last
A routine weeding session in a Lake County forest preserve revealed an uncommon discovery for one ecologist and a reward for everyone working to improve the natural landscape.
In her travels as a stewardship ecologist for the Lake County Forest Preserve District, Kelly Schultz has been keeping watch among the wildflowers for a fuzzy little visitor.
"When I see a nice big patch of bergamot, I think, 'Wouldn't it be nice to find one today?' And there it was," Schultz said of the rusty patched bumble bee she recently spotted at the Greenbelt Forest Preserve in North Chicago.
"We were texting and emailing photographs right away. Everybody was excited," Schultz said.
And with good reason. It was the first documented sighting of the rusty patched bumble bee in the 31,000-acre forest preserve system and second in Lake County, according to Schultz.
Once common from the Dakotas to Maine, its population has shrunk in recent years and its survival is considered threatened. In 2017, the rusty patched bumble bee became the first pollinator protected under the federal Endangered Species Act.
"Its range has collapsed to a small proportion of what it used to be," said Mike Redmer, habitat restoration coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the Chicago area.
"There are a still a few active bands from Chicago to the Twin Cities, but not a whole lot else."
Redmer said he used to see six or seven rusty patched bumble bees each month in his backyard in Kane County, which is stocked with pollinator-friendly purple milkweed.
"Since then, it hasn't been that easy. I saw one last year and one this year. It's certainly not a common bee," he said.
There is no single reason for the bee's decline, Redmer said. But, like other pollinators, loss of habitat, reduced nesting sites, pesticide use, disease and extreme weather have played a role.
Why are bumblebees important? According to the forest preserve district, they are a "keystone species" in functioning ecosystems. Their work is necessary for wildflowers to reproduce and to create seeds and fruits that feed wildlife and humans.
"From native wildflowers to vital crops, I make sure that pollen drops!" reads a description of the rusty patched bumble bee by Chicago Wilderness, a regional alliance of more than 200 public, private, and corporate organizations.
The rusty patched bumble bee population has declined 95% in recent decades and is on the alliance's priority species focus list.
Scientists at the Chicago Academy of Sciences/Peggy Notebaert Museum are working to assist this essential pollinator and coordinate with the Lake County Forest Preserve District and other organizations.
In Lake County, that work includes habitat restoration to provide healthy woodlands, grasslands and tallgrass prairies essential to the rusty patched bumble bee's survival.
"To me, it says that our restorations are working," Schultz said of her find. "We're putting the right plants in. We're creating the right structures."
That's rewarding for everyone, she said.
"It's nice to have something exciting and hopeful in such a challenging year."
Area residents can assist the effort by planting bee-friendly native wildflowers and plants, avoid or limit the use of insecticides, pesticides and chemical fertilizers, and contribute to a citizen science tracking program like BeeSpotter or Bumble Bee Watch, the forest preserve district says.