A graduate-school project of a Western Illinois University alumnus has taken wing as a home for an endangered bee species.
Ross Smith earned his master’s degree in recreation, park and tourism administration in 2018. For his final project, Smith transformed two underutilized baseball diamonds in Hampton into a prairie area for Rock Island County Forest Preserve District, where he has been employed since 2015, according to a WIU news release.
“The baseball diamonds were underutilized, compared to neighboring diamonds and with the Dorrance Forest Preserve hosting diamonds, and grant funding available, it was a no-brainer,” Smith said.
“We did a multi-year count of the number of users and the county board approved the new use for the property. This went hand-in-hand with the project I needed to complete to graduate,” he said.
The Illiniwek Forest Preserve Project was created through this process and, in mid-August, the site became one of just a few nationwide to boast sightings of the endangered Rusty Patched Bumble Bee.
An entomologist at Black Hawk College in Moline confirmed the sighting. The species was added to the Endangered Species list in 2017 and was the first bumblebee in North America protected under the act.
“The bee has a small, little rusty patch on its abdomen, below its wings,” said Smith, a Perry, Ill., native. “We put signage about it on our trails so people know to watch for it.”
(Other signs at the site educate visitors about the restoration of Oak Savanna trees, which were planted by a local YMCA after-school group, and the migration pattern of Monarch butterflies that was supported by a grant from Monarch Watch. The grant paid for 1,500 milkweed plugs to be planted at the site by volunteers to attract butterflies.)
“The endangered bee had been spotted in Peoria, Rockford and Iowa City, and all of those come together here, so we were excited to find one,” he said. The bee also has been spotted at Nahant Marsh, Davenport.
The same YMCA after-school group helped Smith add a bee habitat of branches, stones and bricks.
Finding the endangered bee species may open new sources of funding for the forest-preserve district, including applications for grants to further enhance the habitat.
Through his prairie-restoration project, Smith created partnerships with Pheasants Forever, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Trees Forever, River Action and local Boy Scout troops. The five-acre site on the banks of the Mississippi River includes a hiking trail, which is maintained by the district, as well as a sheet-metal replica of a bison to show the size of the animals that once freely roamed the area. A pergola with a picnic table at the site was an Eagle Scout project.
Smith completed the project under the guidance of WIU RPTA Professor Rob Porter, who maintains the prairie plantings on WIU’s Quad-City campus. Porter said the spring 2019 flooding on the WIU campus in Moline brought invasive species into the campus plantings and destroyed them.
He may have Smith help students rebuild the WIU prairies, but, until then, WIU graduate students are using Smith’s project site for prairie studies.
“I am super-proud he got to be involved in something like this,” Porter said of the restoration.
Smith said he learned patience during his graduate-school project. “The restoration is like Rome. It wasn’t built in a day,” he said “I also learned a lot of native plant species. This is 1,000 years of evolution in one place – it was destroyed in a generation and we’re trying to put it back in a generation.”
For more information about WIU’s RPTA program, visit wiu.edu/RPTA.