Rusty patched bumble bees have recently experienced a 95% population decrease. Loss of essential grassland habitat, increased use of toxic pesticides, reduced availability of nesting grounds, disease, and a changing climate with extreme weather patterns have all played a role in their decline. Chicago Academy of Sciences / Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum scientists are working to monitor and assist this essential pollinator.
About the Rusty Patched Bumble Bee
The rusty patched bumble bee is one of the only endangered species in Illinois that can still be found within the city of Chicago. They are the first federally-listed endangered pollinator in the United States. Chicago is located in the middle of the species’ habitat range providing a diverse habitat for the bees. Chicagoans can play a significant role in supporting the protection and survival of this rare and important pollinator.
The rusty patched bumble bee is the first pollinator to be classified as federally endangered, but it is not the only one we worry about. Studying and helping this bumble bee is going to help all pollinators, and therefore help sustain our food sources and array of native plant species.Allen lawrance
What is the Museum Doing to Help?
Conservationists with the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum monitor and record sightings of all bumble bees spotted around Illinois, hoping to identify the rusty patched bumble bee among them. To accomplish this, researchers catch the bumble bees in mid-flight and cool them in order to calm them down and slow their movements. The researchers then take photographs, searching for the bee’s signature orange stripe and release the bumble bees on site. This method ensures the bees are not removed from their natural habitat during research. During the 2017 season, the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum research team was excited to document a rusty patched bumble bee at one of their monitoring sites.
As the experts continue to develop a monitoring system for these bees in order to learn more about them. One research goal is to locate their nests to document the nesting patterns. This is something that is little understood, and more information could help uncover ways to protect and preserve this endangered species.
You can identify any bumble bee in a photo, as long as you can see their stripes. Rusty patched bumble bees have a characteristic orange patch with yellow both above and below. This is what gives them their namesake: “patch.”
Bumble bees, unlike other bees, create a new hive every summer. Early in the spring, when the bees first emerge for the year, there are only queens, which are adult, mated female bees. Researchers often look at the prevalence and activity of early queens for a preview of what the entire bumble bee population will look like for the rest of the year.
The worker bees are easiest to find in late summer and early fall when they are most active. Because of their long active season, rusty patched bumble bees contribute heavily to the pollinating process of a variety of plants in Illinois and Chicago that are critical to our ecosystem. Worker bees only live for one season. As the weather turns colder, queen bees look for a place to settle in for the winter underground.
How Can I Get Involved?
Citizen scientists can help by monitoring and taking photos of various bumble bees in nature and submitting their findings to researchers to identify via websites like BeeSpotter. People can also work to ensure that the bumble bees have ample nesting and food sources.
Meet the Expert
“To help the rusty patched bumble bees, people can keep their lawns longer, leave some non-mulched areas in a garden and plant flowers that bloom throughout the summer and into the fall, and limit their use of insecticides.”
Allen Lawrance is the Associate Curator of Entomology at the Chicago Academy of Sciences / Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum. There, he oversees husbandry and care of the tropical butterflies in the Judy Istock Butterfly Haven, serves as Assistant Director of the Illinois Butterfly Monitoring Network, and works on the Museum’s rusty patched bumble bee research and conservation project.
Header photo courtesy of Caroline Synakowski.