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.

While the rusty patched bumble bee became the first federally endangered pollinator in 2017, it’s not the only native bumble bee in peril. Of North America’s 4,000 native bees, many are declining rapidly due to habitat loss, increased pesticide use, disease, and climate change. A pollinator poster child, the rusty patched bumble bee’s populations have fallen more than 87% over the past 20 years. And according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, it flies the skies of fewer than 1% of its historic home range.

Native bees are critical to native wildflower pollination and the diversity of the food supply for wildlife and humans alike. Which is why there’s a vast conservation effort happening in natural areas, backyards and cities across North America to save the rusty patched bumble bee from extinction.

Wildlife biologists, restoration ecologists, and community scientists monitor and record sightings using crowd-sourcing sites such as BeeSpotter and Bumble Bee Watch to share data. The majority of information involves sightings during late summer and early fall. This is when female workers—their pollen-laden hind legs resembling yellow leg warmers—and male drones can be captured and put on ice, temporarily slowing them down to allow easier identification. After gathering data, bee researchers release the insects so they may continue on with food collection and sperm donation to the betterment of their hives.

In July 2020, Stewardship Ecologist Kelly Schultz spotted this rusty patched bumble bee at Greenbelt in North Chicago, causing a flurry of excitement among staff, residents and local ecologists. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.
In July 2020, Stewardship Ecologist Kelly Schultz spotted this rusty patched bumble bee at Greenbelt in North Chicago, causing a flurry of excitement among staff, residents and local ecologists. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.

And yet researchers struggle to learn more about how those hives actually function. They know the lifecycle of native bumble bees is unique—the entire colony dies out in late fall, leaving behind only a queen, who’s already been fertilized, to overwinter. It’s not totally clear where the vagabond queen hunkers down, but new research leads scientists to suspect she heads into forests to slumber in the crevices of trees. Come spring, she emerges to establish a colony in old mammal burrows or the cracks of tree trunks.

The rusty patched bumble bee is one of North America’s 4,000 native bee species. Photo © Dan Mullen.

The queen typically times her spring emergence to coincide with the blooming of ephemeral woodland wildflowers. These early-blooming plants provide a much-needed energy boost for the queen, necessary for her work setting up the hive after a long winter dormancy.

But a new study shows evidence of a decline in spring woodland wildflowers, along with an increase in prairie and grassland flowers the rusty patched bumble bee feeds from during summer and fall. Researchers hypothesize this drop in woodland spring blooms might contribute to the fall in bumble bee populations by limiting the queen’s ability to garner enough energy to start a colony. There’s also evidence of climate change implications as the flowering times of plants may start to shift, potentially misaligning the queen’s needs with the availability of nectar and pollen in early spring.

A rusty patched bumble bee feeds on nectar from a wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) plant. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.
A rusty patched bumble bee feeds on nectar from a wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) plant. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.

With its long colony life stretching from April through September, the endangered rusty patched bumble bee requires nectar and pollen from a variety of native flowers in prairies and grasslands over spring, summer and fall. Additionally, it needs the safe haven of a healthy woodland to support the overwintering queen. Habitat restoration of these vital ecosystems in the Forest Preserves and other natural areas is critical to help ensure this species survives and thrives in Lake County.

You can help, as well! Plant bee-friendly native plants, avoid the use of toxic pesticides and chemical fertilizers, and contribute to community science monitoring programs such as BeeSpotter or Bumble Bee Watch. Let’s all keep the buzz of native bumble bees going!

A native garden to call your own

Guest post by Eileen Davis

What is your earliest gardening memory? Was it planting a seed in a paper cup at school, and watching it sprout and grow on the classroom windowsill? Perhaps you gathered dandelion flowers and presented your mom with a beautiful, yellow bouquet. Or did you rake up a giant pile of leaves to jump in on a crisp fall day? You might even have visited the native garden at Independence Grove in Libertyville, part of the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois.

My earliest gardening memory is helping my aunt and uncle in their garden. I was only about four or five years old, but I clearly remember the prickly feeling of the cucumber vines scratching my forearm as I helped pull weeds. No matter the memory, we are all doing the same thing—tending to our little piece of the Earth. It’s something humans have done for thousands and thousands of years. We are and always have been dependent on our environment for survival.

The author's daughters playing in a backyard leaf pile. Photo © Eileen Davis.
The author’s daughters playing in a backyard leaf pile. Photo © Eileen Davis.
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Milkweed. It’s not just for the monarchs.

Post by Jen Berlinghof

Being home more these past months has allowed my family copious time to observe the common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) in our garden go through its life cycle day by day. We’ve witnessed the transformation from wily little sprouts in early summer to blooming beasts, with pompoms of eraser-pink flowers wafting perfume across the yard—even threatening to take over the footpath—by Fourth of July. Now in the sweet days of September, our milkweed is laden with swelling seed pods, ready to burst with floating seeds like so many little white parachutes scattered in the autumnal sky. The situation is similar in many of the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois.

The beautiful flowerhead of common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca). Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.
The beautiful flowerhead of common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca). Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.
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Jack-in-the-pulpit? Or Jill?

Guest post by Pati Vitt

The weather has varied a lot so far this spring. Minor snow squalls and hailstorms trade off with wonderfully warm, sunny days, which seem to call out, encouraging us to find the signs of spring. When the season brings all the beauty and promise of plants and flowers emerging from the winter, I feel as if I am seeing friends old and new once again. It’s rather comforting to know that regardless of what occurs in human society, spring carries on in the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois.

Many of the floral signs of spring are ephemeral, created by healthy populations of plant species that only emerge above ground for six to eight weeks—between the start of the spring warm-up and the closure of the canopy, when the trees grow a full set of leaves. Their live-fast lifestyle is an evolved response to their shade intolerance. Ephemerals need to finish flowering and fruiting while they have enough sunlight, and also put something away for a rainy day. They stash the sugar they make during photosynthesis in underground storage organs such as corms, bulbs, and rhizomes. The starchy carbon will see them through the winter into the next spring.

Some residents of our woodlands and prairies announce the arrival of spring in understated ways that require careful attention. The early-flowering harbinger of spring (Erigenia bulbosa), and later bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), are two examples. Other signs of spring are exuberant and showy, such as the carpets of marsh marigold (Caltha palustris) at Ryerson Conservation Area in Riverwoods. And of course, no spring display is quite so welcome as large-flowered trillium (Trillium grandiflorum) in full bloom. (This sight is only possible when the white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) population is stable; otherwise these beautiful plants are eaten out of existence.)

Not all spring wildflowers are showy, though, and not all of them are ephemeral. Arriving later in the season, Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) is one of the most common spring wildflowers in our woodlands. It’s usually entirely green in Lake County. Rarely, some maroon stripes may also be seen on the inflorescence, the reproductive portion of the plant.

Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) is a beautiful resident of deciduous woodlands. It typically grows one to two feet tall. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.
Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) is a beautiful resident of deciduous woodlands. It typically grows one to two feet tall. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.
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