'We're doing something right': Sightings of endangered rusty patched bumblebees create a buzz

  • Rusty patched bumble bees have been federally listed as endangered since 2017.

    Rusty patched bumble bees have been federally listed as endangered since 2017. Courtesy of Alma Schrage

  • Bee biologist Alma Schrage leads a bee monitoring training session as part of a first-of-its-kind monitoring program in Illinois that is credited with contributing to a boost in sightings of the endangered rusty patched bumblebee in Lake County and elsewhere.

    Bee biologist Alma Schrage leads a bee monitoring training session as part of a first-of-its-kind monitoring program in Illinois that is credited with contributing to a boost in sightings of the endangered rusty patched bumblebee in Lake County and elsewhere. Courtesy of Citizens for Conservation

  • Bee biologist Alma Schrage leads a bee monitoring training session. The inaugural bee monitoring program has been part of an increase in the number of sightings of the endangered rusty patched bumblebee in Lake County and elsewhere.

    Bee biologist Alma Schrage leads a bee monitoring training session. The inaugural bee monitoring program has been part of an increase in the number of sightings of the endangered rusty patched bumblebee in Lake County and elsewhere. Courtesy of Citizens for Conservation

  • Bee biologist Alma Schrage searches for the endangered rusty patched bumble bee.

    Bee biologist Alma Schrage searches for the endangered rusty patched bumble bee. Courtesy of Brandie Dunn

  • This is a rusty patched bumblebee queen. Sightings of multiple bees of this kind are being verified.

    This is a rusty patched bumblebee queen. Sightings of multiple bees of this kind are being verified. Courtesy of Alma Schrage

 
 
Posted9/16/2022 5:30 AM

Two years ago, the first documented sighting of the federally endangered rusty patched bumblebee in the 31,000-acre Lake County Forest Preserve system was big news for friends of the environment.

This year, an uptick in sightings in several Lake County forest preserves -- and elsewhere -- is an encouraging sign for the pollinators as well as efforts to restore and improve habitats throughout the region.

 

Increased monitoring and awareness, including an inaugural program that sent trained spotters into the field, also has played a key role especially in Lake County.

Nine individual rusty patched bees were found at six of the 13 Lake County forest preserves surveyed. For four of them, it was the first time the bee had been seen there since disappearing in the late 1990s or early 2000s, according to Alma Schrage, a bee biologist who has been surveying for the rusty patched bee in the Chicago area the last four years.

As a flagship species, the elusive pollinator is important for food security and ecosystems, and it's an indicator of healthy land.

"I wouldn't say it's more important than other species, (but) it's more like it's the canary in the coal mine," Schrage said.

Rusty patched bees experienced a widespread and steep decline before being federally listed as endangered in 2017, according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. It's one of 10 bumble bee species in Illinois and the first pollinator protected under the federal Endangered Species Act.

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Sightings have increased in Lake County not necessarily because their population is increasing, Schrage said, but restoration efforts certainly have an impact.

That's true at Pine Dunes, east of Antioch in northern Lake County. Beginning in 2013, the Lake County Forest Preserve District worked with the Illinois Toll Highway Authority on a $12 million public access and restoration project.

"Pine Dunes was largely agricultural prior to the restoration efforts, so the likelihood of rusty patched living and foraging there is quite low," said Pati Vitt, the district's director of natural resources.

After restoration was completed, a team from the Illinois Natural History Survey -- including Schrage, who then was a grad student -- found other bees species of note. But rusty patched wasn't among them.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"The recent sighting is an indication that this species has expanded, at least its foraging, into Pine Dunes very recently," Vitt said.

Schrage spotted the rusty patched bee at Pine Dunes a few weeks ago as an independent contractor. She agreed its presence there shows restorations can create suitable habitat in a relatively short period of time.

"We've also had multiple years of sightings in older, very diverse restorations owned and managed by CFC (Barrington-based nonprofit Citizens for Conservation), which speaks to the value of long-term management and investment in restored landscapes," she said.

After the Illinois Natural History Survey, Schrage became a contractor with the U.S. Geological Survey. She also is in the second of a three-year contract with Citizens for Conservation.

In that role, she has been working as a pollinator ecologist for the Barrington Greenway Initiative, a 14,000-acre area covering portions of Cook, Lake and McHenry counties.

As part of that initiative, Schrage trained nine volunteers for an inaugural bee monitoring program. Volunteers from Citizens for Conservation, the Lake County Forest Preserve District and Lake Forest Open Lands participated.

"I wasn't sure if we would get any rusty patched sightings at all," she said. "They completely blew past my expectations."

Diane Pacenti of Gurnee had volunteered for the forest preserve district in other activities, such as seed gathering, but was intrigued by the plight of bees.

After training with Schrage, she visited two sites on three separate occasions and took pictures to be reviewed.

"I wasn't sure what I had," she said. "It was a rusty patched and I was so excited."

Whatever the reason, the presence of rusty patched bees is encouraging.

"That's probably a sign we're doing something right with the landscape, which is very important due to climate change," Schrage said.

Vitt said the district is comparing volunteer findings with professional surveys at the same sites to verify the quality of the data.

Patty Barten, outreach director for Citizens for Conservation, said the presence of diverse wildlife is an indicator of healthy land, which improves water filtration and controls erosion, among other things.

The organization adjusts its restoration plans with input from plant, bird and bee monitoring, she said.

"Some people think restoration is just cutting buckthorn or weeding out invasives," she said. "But success requires long-term planning, management plans, continual adjustments based on data and facts, and of course, deep conservation knowledge and many dedicated volunteers hours of work."

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