Planting for pollinators

Guest post by Eileen Davis

It’s a sunny July afternoon at a Lake County Forest Preserve in northern Illinois. The humidity is low and the breeze is just right. I’m poised over a patch of wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), furiously clicking away with my camera, hoping to get at least one image that will be clear enough for me to identify the native bumble bee feeding on the flower. If there’s a better way to spend a Saturday afternoon, I haven’t found it.

A two-spotted bumble bee (Bombus bimaculatus) feeds on wild bergamot. Photo © Eileen Davis.
A two-spotted bumble bee (Bombus bimaculatus) feeds on wild bergamot. Photo © Eileen Davis.

I’ve joined about a dozen other people training to become volunteer bee monitors under the direction of Alma Schrage. Alma is a pollinator ecologist and contractor researcher doing surveys on lands owned by the Forest Preserves and Citizens for Conservation in service of the Barrington Greenway Initiative.

We completed two online training sessions this spring and spent time learning to identify the 11 species of bumble bees found in Illinois. This day’s field session taught us the protocols we need to follow when in the field counting and photographing bumble bees and the flowers they visit.

Volunteer bee monitors at a training session. Photo © Eileen Davis.
Volunteer bee monitors at a training session. Photo © Eileen Davis.

Why are we so interested in counting bumble bees? Because in summer 2020, Forest Preserves staff spotted the federally endangered rusty patched bumble bee (Bombus affinis) in a local preserve. Once common across much of the eastern United States, the rusty patched bumble bee (RPBB) population has declined by more than 87% in the last 20 years due to habitat loss, pesticide use and climate change. And they’re not alone. Many other native pollinator populations are declining, as well.

A rusty patched bumble bee (Bombus affinis) feeds on wild bergamot in a preserve. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.
A rusty patched bumble bee (Bombus affinis) feeds on wild bergamot in a preserve. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.

The work done by Forest Preserves staff and volunteers to restore habitat in the preserves—such as removing non-native, invasive plants and planting native trees, shrubs, wildflowers and grasses—is critical to supporting not only the RPBB, but all native pollinators.

The 31,000-plus acres managed by the Forest Preserves represent about 10% of land in Lake County. Which is fantastic—and yet, only 10% of the land! So, what about the other 90%? That’s where the rest of us come in. What we plant and how we plant it make a difference. Here are some things you can do at home to help support native pollinators.

Add native plants to your garden. Native plants are those that have been growing here for thousands of years. They’re the plants native wildlife use for food and shelter. They are also adapted to the local climate, so once established, are easier to grow and maintain. Even if you don’t have a garden, there are many native plants that work well in containers on a balcony or patio. Our Online Native Plant Sale, open now through October 31, 2022, is a great source from which to purchase native plants.

Choose a variety of plants to provide blooms throughout the growing season. When planning your garden, be sure to include some early spring and late-summer-through-fall bloomers to provide plenty of nectar and pollen for pollinators active at different times of year. Plant flowers in groups of five individuals or more if possible. These larger groups, or swaths, of blooms grab the attention of pollinators and allow them to feed more efficiently.

Early-season bloomers such as Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica) provide critical pollen and nectar for bumble bee queens emerging in spring. Photo © Eileen Davis.
Early-season bloomers such as Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica) provide critical pollen and nectar for bumble bee queens emerging in spring. Photo © Eileen Davis.
A swath of butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) in the author's garden. Photo © Eileen Davis.
A swath of butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) in the author’s garden. Photo © Eileen Davis.
Large groups of wildflowers attract the attention of pollinators and allow them to feed more efficiently. Photo © Eileen Davis.
Large groups of wildflowers attract the attention of pollinators and allow them to feed more efficiently. Photo © Eileen Davis.

Eliminate pesticide use. Pesticides kill not only pest insects, but beneficial predator insects, bees and butterflies as well. By adding native plants to your garden, you’ll attract beneficial predator insects and will notice they do a great job of pest control.

Skip the fall garden clean-up and leave your leaves. Many native pollinators overwinter in leaf litter and on native plants as either an egg, larva or adult. Waiting until spring to clean up the yard, and keeping leaves and other plant material in your garden, provides important habitat and improves the health of the soil. In spring, trim flower stalks to 18–24 inches. These hollow stems provide homes for cavity-nesting bees.

A tomato hornworm (Manduca quinquemaculata) caterpillar—which matures into the five-spotted hawk moth—is covered with the cocoons of a parasitoid wasp. Photo © Eileen Davis.
A tomato hornworm (Manduca quinquemaculata) caterpillar—which matures into the five-spotted hawk moth—is covered with the cocoons of a parasitoid wasp. Photo © Eileen Davis.
Stems from last summer's wild blue indigo (Baptisia australis) become homes for native bees. Photo © Eileen Davis.
Stems from last summer’s blue wild indigo (Baptisia australis) become homes for native bees. Photo © Eileen Davis.

To learn more about how you can plant for pollinators and garden with native plants, check out our online calendar for upcoming programs. Join our FREE Landscaping for a Changing Climate virtual program on September 14, 7–8 pm, to discover nature-based solutions that lessen the impacts of the changing climate.

In-person and virtual presentations are available for organized groups such as HOAs, garden clubs, libraries and municipalities. Email our educators at AskAnEducator@LCFPD.org to schedule a FREE presentation for your group. And read more native landscaping tips on our website.

The bird that wears a tuxedo backwards

Guest post by Jenny Sazama

One May many years ago, I was biking the Millennium Trail and Greenway from Lakewood in Wauconda to Singing Hills in Round Lake—two sites of the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois—to time out an activity for summer camp. That’s when I first noticed a distinctive blackbird magically appear from within the tall grasses.

This happened at least 30 times as I cycled the winding 1.62-mile trail section from Gilmer Road to the Singing Hills parking lot. As I coasted by these birds, I detected a “chunk” call and noticed their color pattern, which has been described as a classic black tuxedo worn backwards.

I wondered who this dapper fellow was and why there were so many along this route, emerging from this habitat. I would soon learn this pop-up-from-the-grasses blackbird was none other than the bobolink (Dolichonyx oryzivorus). It’s eastern North America’s only songbird whose feathers are black below and mostly white above, with a buttery, cream-yellow nape. Keep watch for a white rump, too, as he takes flight.

A male bobolink calls at Rollins Savanna in Grayslake. Now is a good time of year to try to spot bobolinks in preserves with meadows and prairies. Photo © Phil Hauck.
A male bobolink calls at Rollins Savanna in Grayslake. Now is a good time of year to try to spot bobolinks in preserves with meadows and prairies. Photo © Phil Hauck.
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Enjoy the hooting season

Post by Jen Berlinghof

In February, sensational sunrises and sunsets break up the stark days and cold, dark nights of a waning winter. Dawn and dusk not only bring the thrill of color to a monochrome landscape, but also the best chance of hearing and seeing nocturnal raptors. As the mercury drops, owl courtship heats up. While many other birds head south for winter, owls pair up and hunker down. At night, the soundtrack of our resident species’ hoots and hollers fills the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois, offering us a glimpse into an otherwise hidden world.

Winter is a time of snow, beautiful sunsets—and mating season for local owls. Photo © John D. Kavc.
Winter is a time of snow, beautiful sunrises and sunsets—and mating season for local owls. Photo © John D. Kavc.
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Winter reveals hidden homes

Post by Jen Berlinghof

The winter landscape, stripped of its lush layers of leaves and fields of flowers, reveals hidden homes. This season of stillness offers a glimpse into animal lives that were carried on clandestinely throughout spring, summer and fall around the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois. It’s surprising to see how many critters have been busy raising families right under our noses, or sometimes, right above our heads, without us always noticing.

A soothing winter scene at Lyons Woods in Waukegan. Photo © John D. Kavc.
A soothing winter scene at Lyons Woods in Waukegan. Photo © John D. Kavc.
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How animals survive the winter

Guest post by April Vaos

Living in Illinois, we’re lucky enough to enjoy a change of seasons. Though I often find it difficult to switch from the crunch of fall leaves to the crunch of snow, it can be a peaceful time to head outdoors. Recently, I went walking in Independence Grove in Libertyville, part of the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois. As I looked around in the quiet, contemplative landscape, I thought about the life that teemed all around me, and how it was now hidden from view or departed on a migration.

While leading winter walks, I’m often asked, “Where are all the animals?” It depends on the animal. Each employs different survival strategies that help it adapt and even thrive in winter. What, exactly, do animals do to make it through the challenges of cold temperatures and a lack of food? Well, I like to say they have MAD strategies: migrate, active and dormant.

When cool temperatures arrive in northern Illinois, so do dark-eyed juncos (Junco hyemalis). Not only do they visit Illinois, they migrate into all of the lower 48 states to spend a milder winter than where they’re from: Canada. Stock photo.
When cool temperatures arrive in northern Illinois, so do dark-eyed juncos (Junco hyemalis). Not only do they visit Illinois, they migrate into all of the lower 48 states to spend a milder winter than where they’re from: Canada. Stock photo.
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A foray into fall fungi

Post by Brett Peto

Until recently, I haven’t given mushroom (much room) in my head to the Fungi kingdom. It’s been an admitted blindspot in my nature knowledge for too long. I’m taking some steps to correct this, though. Reading books such as Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake. Looking for fungi in the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois and other natural areas. Taking photos of the ones I find and doing my best to identify them.

There’s still much I don’t know—apologies for any errors in advance—but I can claim to know a bit more now than I did at the start of 2021. With fall being possibly the best time to spot some fungi, I thought I’d write about some common species you might discover in the preserves.

Some slugs feasting on fungi. Photo © Helena Keller.
Some slugs feasting on fungi. Photo © Helena Keller.
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Bringing back the buzz

Post by Jen Berlinghof

All summer long, swaths of wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) quake in the presence of thousands of native bumble bee wings beating away. These pollination dynamos use a technique called buzz pollination, vibrating their bodies to trigger nearby flowers to release pollen. At the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois, a similar buzz of excitement arrived in summer 2020 when staff spotted the federally endangered rusty patched bumble bee (Bombus affinis) at Greenbelt in North Chicago.

Fast forward to summer 2021. The hum continues to reverberate after multiple sightings of this keystone species were documented across the county from Flint Creek to Wadsworth Savanna in Wadsworth. While summer’s the height of hive activity, the shoulder seasons—usually defined as May, June, September and October—might be key to the success of the rusty patched bumble bee. This is partly due to the timing, or phenology, of the species’ lifecycle. It’s one of the first bees to emerge in spring and the last to enter hibernation in fall.

A worker, or male, rusty patched bumble bee (Bombus affinis) sits atop mountain mint. Photo © Dan Mullen.
A rusty patched bumble bee (Bombus affinis) sits atop mountain mint. Photo © Dan Mullen.
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A thousand-mile journey on two-inch wings

Post by Jen Berlinghof

I’ve spent many days this summer living the “lake life,” from the sandy dunes of the Great Lakes to the cattail-studded coves of inland waters. The waterways found within the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois have been especially rewarding. Each shoreline has provided unique glimpses of wildlife, including an osprey (Pandion haliaetus) diving full throttle to catch a fish at dawn, and a red fox (Vulpes vulpes) pouncing on prey hidden among the beach grass at dusk.

Also present at every waterway this summer has been the jewel-hued, common green darner dragonfly (Anax junius). These ubiquitous insects effortlessly nab multitudes of mosquitoes on the wing. While the monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) reigns in our minds when it comes to insect migrations, recent research reveals the green darner takes a multi-generational, miles-long journey of its own each year.

Common green darner dragonflies (Anax junius) are found in the forest preserves. Stock photo.
Common green darner dragonflies (Anax junius) are found in the forest preserves. Stock photo.
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What’s wrong with this picture?

Editor’s note: hey readers, Brett Peto here. This month, guest author Pati Vitt, Manager of Restoration Ecology at the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois, returns with the third part of her series about our research project to restore 180 acres of former farmland within Grant Woods Forest Preserve in Ingleside using a climate-adapted, regionally sourced native seed mix.

This past winter, we planted 800 pounds of native grass seed from southern Illinois and Kentucky in the project area. The goal was (and still is) to help us understand whether we should source native seeds from further south to make our future restoration projects more resilient to climate change.

Unfortunately, as you can probably tell from the photo below, even the best-laid plans can go awry. And so they did, when an unseasonable early drought struck. Pati will pick it up from here.

The author's boot atop a drought-parched patch of soil at Grant Woods in Ingleside. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.
The author’s boot atop a drought-parched patch of soil at Grant Woods in Ingleside. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.
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Become a community scientist

Post by Jen Berlinghof

While the past year and a half has kept many of us mostly at home, nature in our backyards and beyond has provided a balm for these trying times. General use of the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois is trending 30% higher in 2021 than a typical pre-pandemic year. And in 2020, there was an astounding 70% surge in visitation. The number of folks delving into home gardening and backyard birding has skyrocketed as well, making headlines by leaving store shelves bare of birdseed and bird feeders. The COVID-19 pandemic has amplified our desire to connect to nature closer to home, and it has created space and time for local, daily observations. All of this translates to an environment ripe for community science, also called citizen science.

Community scientists flip over a cover board during a BioBlitz event held at Middlefork Savanna in Lake Forest in 2008. Photo © Carol Freeman.
Community scientists flip over a cover board during a BioBlitz event held at Middlefork Savanna in Lake Forest in 2008. Photo © Carol Freeman.
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