Between the Lines

With columnist Anna Marie Lux.

All abuzz: Endangered bumblebee spotted in Janesville

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Anna Marie Lux
Sunday, August 13, 2017

JANESVILLE—Claudia Downing came to Janesville in July to see her grandparents.

She also made a dramatic discovery at Rotary Gardens.

The high school student from Montana photographed a rare insect with a tenuous toehold on survival.

Among the blooms, Downing snapped an image of a rusty patched bumblebee, named for the tiny light brown spot on its abdomen.

The state Department of Natural Resources says it is the first confirmed sighting in Rock County for at least 30 years.

The striped black and yellow insect received historic designation when it landed on the endangered species list in March.

For the first time ever, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service put a bee species under federal protection.

The designation puts into place regulations against knowingly destroying places where the bumblebee lives.

Owen Boyle of the DNR's Bureau of Natural Heritage Conservation called Rotary Gardens “a perfect situation for a bumblebee” because of blooming flowers from spring through fall.

“They are providing great habitat for a rare species,” Boyle said.

Mark Dwyer, director of horticulture at the gardens, is pleased with the sighting.

Finding the bee “is testament to the fact that we have minimal chemical use and a very diverse habitat for pollinators,” Dwyer said.

“We are known for flowers and people enjoying our collection of plants,” he added. “But it's also about what those plants do for more than people. The fact that an endangered pollinator is in the garden is exceptional.”

Once, the native rusty patched bumblebee could be found broadly across the eastern United States and Upper Midwest, including Wisconsin.

Since 2000, the insect has been seen in only 13 states, including spotty areas of southern Wisconsin. They include Walworth, Dane and Green counties.

Today, federal protection might be the only thing standing between the bumblebee and extinction.

“The rusty patched bumblebee is the canary in the coal mine,” Boyle said. “If we can do better for it, we can do better for all pollinators.”

The bee's steep decline is true of many pollinator species, including other bees and butterflies.

Loss of habitat due to farming and development, farm and yard pesticides, which are easily absorbed by bees, disease and climate change all have contributed to the bee's disappearance.

Tamara Smith, a U.S. Fish & Wildlife biologist in Minneapolis, said the agency is working on a detailed recovery plan to restore the bumblebee's populations.

“We are focusing our efforts on preventing extinction,” she said. “We are looking for the populations and asking what can we do to bolster them.”

Saving the bee is critical because of its role in pollination.

Honeybees pollinate many of the foods people in the U.S. eat, but bumblebees also are prolific pollinators. They pollinate plants in forests, meadows and croplands by performing a behavior known as “buzz pollination.”

The bumblebee dislodges pollen from a flower by grabbing a flower in her jaws and vibrating her wing muscles.

Unlike many endangered species, the rusty patched bumblebee seems to be surviving mostly in cities.

“The opposite is true for many endangered species,” Boyle said. “It flips the paradigm on its head. It's not real common to see a federally endangered species in places like Madison and Minneapolis, but the bees are there.”

The bumblebee is one of the first to emerge in the spring and one of the last to hibernate in the fall so it needs consistent blooms to feed on.

“Native flowers provide more nutrients than others,” Smith said. “Urban folks can play an important role in saving the bumblebee by planting pollinator gardens, reducing use of pesticides and leaving any (bee) nests they might discover in their yards.”

Since the federal listing, people have become more aware of the bumblebee's plight.

“There has been a lot of interest in finding records of the species and new sightings,” Boyle said.

Citizen scientists also are learning about other bumblebees.

“There are upwards of 20 species of bumblebees in Wisconsin,” Boyle said. “But I would wager that a lot of people say most of them look alike.”

He encouraged people to do just what Claudia Downing did: photograph bees and submit them to websites, including Bumblebee Watch, to confirm their identities and locations.

“Photographing bees is challenging,” Boyle said. “But it's also fun.”

Anna Marie Lux is a Sunday columnist for The Gazette. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264, or email amarielux@gazettextra.com.

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