Illiniwek Forest Preserve recently became one of a few sites nationwide with a confirmed sighting of the endangered Rusty Patched Bumble Bee, or Bombus affinis.
The species has declined by 96 percent in the last 20 years and is likely to be present in only 0.1% of its historical range.
The sighting was confirmed by Isaac Stewart, assistant professor of biology at Black Hawk College’s East Campus, and is a milestone moment for the Rock Island County Forest Preserve District’s conservation efforts.
“I was out walking my dog and happened to see this bee that looked awfully unusual,” said Mike Petersen, park ranger at Illiniwek in Hamilton, Illinois. “I sent a picture of it to Isaac and he came out the next day and identified 10 female and 3 male Rusty Patched Bumble Bees in under an hour. We are beyond excited that our prairie restoration efforts are paying off in such a big way.”
In 2017, the Rusty Patched Bumble Bee was the first bumble bee protected under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Once common through the United States and Canada, today, the species is only found in fragmented populations of the Midwest.
“This is the best possible indicator that the prairie restorations the Forest Preserve District has been working on are paying off,” said Stewart. “Finding this new sighting is really important in our efforts of staving off the extinction of this species.”
The Rock Island County Forest Preserve District, which includes Illiniwek, Loud Thunder Forest Preserve, Dorrance Park, Martin Conservation Area, Niabi Zoo and Indian Bluff Golf Course, has been working hard to provide suitable habitats for all plants and animals that call its properties home.
Over the last five years, the Forest Preserve District has planted 55 acres of prairies between its six properties, and this fall, a season record-breaking 46 acres of prairies are expected to be planted.
Partners in this effort include the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Pheasants Forever, Trees Forever, the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation, Monarch Watch, the John Deere local area conservation fund administered by Living Lands and Waters, as well as donations from private contributors.
Indian Bluff Golf Course is home to one of the state’s rarest native, undisturbed hillside prairies.
“Remarkably, prairie once covered 60 percent of Illinois, but today only one percent of that land remains,” said Jeff Craver, Forest Preserve District director. “It is our organization’s goal to re-establish these habitat-rich lands, and to educate our visitors and citizens to do the same in their own backyards.”
Stewart, who has been studying bumble bees since 2007, partnered with the District in 2017 to survey the bee population in the parks and help monitor an increase in diversity. On the same day Stewart spotted the Rusty Patched Bumble Bee on Illiniwek’s grounds, he also made a confirmed sighting of another threatened bee species, the bombus pensylvanicus or American Bumblebee.
“We’re definitely seeing an increase in diversity in the bee population,” said Stewart. “In doing this, we’ve also created habitat for other species that aren’t as well studied, charismatic and well understood. It’s very, very exciting to see the efforts paying off.”
To help foster an environment that’s attractive for endangered bees, Stewart recommends people focus on wildflowers that are native to the region, like beebalms.
“There are many very pretty wildflowers at local nurseries, but it’s really important the flowers are native to the area. Also, try to plant a selection of wildflowers that bloom through the spring and fall. In addition to summer blooms, the bees need nectar to feed on early in the spring and late into the fall.”
If you think you’ve spotted a Rusty Patched Bumble Bee, take a picture of the animal and share it with an expert for confirmation. Websites like www.bumblebeewatch.org/ have portals to submit photos of bees. Do not attempt to capture, touch or disturb the bee.
For more information on Rock Island County Forest Preserve, please visit www.RICFPD.org.