Niabi Zoo, already home to more than 250 species, has confirmed the presence of a population of endangered Rusty Patch Bumble Bees on its grounds in Coal Valley, Ill.

While not actually part of its animal collection, The Rusty Patch Bumble Bee presence is in no small part, due to the efforts of zoo staff in returning portions of the zoo grounds to native plantings, Director Lee Jackson said in a news release.

After identifying the first Rusty Patched Bumble Bee in the Quad Cities in 2018 at Niabi Zoo after it was thought to be extinct in the region, this species has since been seen at Nahant Marsh and Illiniwek Forest Preserve.

The Rusty Patch Bumble Bee. Photo provided by Niabi Zoo.

This was an exciting discovery, Jackson said. “This remarkable insect needs tall-grass prairie habitat in order to survive,” he said. “Today only about 1% of that habitat is left in Illinois. The Rock Island County Forest Preserve District, which includes the Zoo, have been working hard to provide suitable habitats for all plants and animals that call these properties home.”

First placed on the endangered species list in 2017, the Rusty Patch Bumble Bees was once common throughout the Eastern United States and two provinces of Canada. Since 2000 the bee has been found only in fragmented populations in 13 states and one Canadian Provence: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, Wisconsin, and Ontario, Canada.

In 2017 The Rusty Patched Bumble Bee was listed on the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) Endangered Species List in 2017 and was the first bumble bee ever listed. Its population has been in dramatic decline from habitat loss, intensive farming, pesticide use, disease, and climate change. 

Bumble bees are one of the most important pollinators of many crops and one of the only insect pollinators of tomatoes. They are far more effective pollinators than even honey bees because of the bumble bee’s ability to “buzz pollinate.” The pollination services of native insects, especially bees, provide an economic value of nearly $3 billion per year in the United States.

Over the last five years’ multiple pollinator gardens have been planted at the Niabi Zoo. In 2017, Zoo volunteers established the first two pollinator gardens at the zoo at the Discovery Center and the Domestic Animal area which were funded by a grant from USFWS and Living Lands and Waters.

Zoo and Rock Island Forest Preserve District staff seeded multiple acres of former pasture area behind the scenes with prairie plants. In 2018, working in collaboration with the University of Illinois Extension Master Gardeners, pollinator pocket gardens were established around the Australian Outback exhibit. In 2019, hundreds of milkweed plants were planted in multiple areas in and around the Zoo.

In 2020, the bank of the front pond just inside the zoo entrance was reseeded with a wide variety of prairie flowers in partnership with USFWS. In 2021, along with Illiniwek Forest Preserve Rangers, a pollinator patch was established near the entrance to the Zoo’s train tunnel.

In collaboration with the Ecological Services Field Office from the USFWS in Moline, staff and interns from Niabi Zoo, USFWS, and Nahant Marsh have been conducting bi-weekly surveys to determine the presence of the Rusty Patched Bumble Bee and other pollinating species at the zoo. It has been discovered that there are resident populations at Niabi Zoo and in its surrounding Forest Preserve with dozens of individuals being identified in its gardens and restored prairie habitat.

“The zoo has been experimenting with allowing more natural plant growth, and designating no mow zones at the zoo for several years now. It’s been a little jarring for folks who are used to the manicured golf course look” said Jackson. “We continue to make adjustments based on the results and benefits we see.

The zoo opens at 9 a.m. seven days per week, with last entry at 2 p.m. For more information, visit here.