When the phrase “endangered species” is used, large animals like Asian elephants, whooping cranes, black footed ferrets, and Bornean orangutans most frequently come to mind. Consider the logos for major wildlife conservation organizations. Again, these species are usually large animals, frequently mammalian, and high on the food chain. While some of the Earth’s mammal species are declining at alarming rates, other less charismatic groups with critical ecosystem roles such as fish, mollusks, and plants make up a far larger proportion of listed endangered species. At Goose Pond Sanctuary, we host three endangered insects including the silphium borer moth, red-tailed leaf hoppers, and as of August 3, the rusty patched bumblebee.
The rusty patched bumble bee was the first bee listed as endangered in the continental United States when it was official added to the federal endangered species list in 2017. In the 1900’s, the rusty patch was formerly abundant across the Midwest, eastern US, and southeastern Canada. Major contributors to declines in rusty patch populations are habitat loss, pesticide use, and pathogens. Recent surveys show that the range of the rusty patch has decreased dramatically over the last decade, and their overall population has decreased by at least 87%. This is one of the reasons that we were ecstatic when Taylor Tai, a graduate student from UW Madison whose focus is on bumble bee habitat requirements, successfully captured and identified a rusty patch bumble bee at Goose Pond during a tour.
Rusty patch bumble bees can be found in a variety of habitats including open woodlands, backyard gardens, and prairies. They have short tongues relative to other bumble bees and therefore prefer open flowers. Sun flowers, bee balm, and goldenrods are some of their favorites. Sunflowers at the Goose Pond food plot just began to bloom, and they’re covered in bumble bees and butterflies. The rusty patch is known to pollinate 65 genera of plants including some species that are highly beneficial to humans like cherries, apples, cranberries, and alfalfa.
Prior to the discovery of a rusty patch bumblebee this summer, eight of the seventeen Wisconsin bumble bee species have been observed at Goose Pond Sanctuary. Most bumble bee colonies are composed of a single queen along with 30 to 200 female workers. Nests are usually located a foot or two below the soil surface in abandoned rodent holes or in insulated above ground cavities. Males do not inhabit the colony. Bumble bees and other pollinators need high quality nectar plants throughout the season which is why prairies with high plant diversity and variable bloom times provide excellent pollinator habitat.
On August 2, Eva Lewandows and Terrell Hyde, both conservation biologists from the WI DNR’s Bureau of Natural Heritage Conservation, visited Goose Pond in search of bumble bees. Their objective was to test survey methods and establish protocol for citizen volunteers assisting with the Wisconsin Bumble Bee Brigade. If you want to learn bumble bee life history, how to identify them, or how you can help, visit the Wisconsin Bumble Bee Brigade home page. You can read about Wisconsin bumble bee species, explore datasets, or submit your own observations.
Our rusty patched bumble bee was found nectaring on bee balm (also referred to as bergamot or Monarda fistulosa) in the Lapinski–Kitze Prairie. Now is an excellent time to view bumblebees at Goose Pond. All you need is short range binoculars or better yet a camera with a zoom lens. The best places to park are at Lapinski–Kitze Prairie off of Goose Pond Road, and the Land Managers’ residence (W7503 Kampen Road) which is adjacent to our food plot. These insects are large and technically can sting, but they’re some of the fuzziest and friendliest critters out there. Throughout all of her time capturing thousands of bumblebees in pursuit of research, Taylor Tai has not been stung a single time.
Written by Graham Steinhauer, Goose Pond Sanctuary land steward
Cover photo by USFWS Midwest Region