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Endangered Bumble Bees The Focus Of Chicago Groups' Protection Efforts

By Justin Breen | January 13, 2017 6:25am
 An endangered Rusty Patched Bumble Bee
An endangered Rusty Patched Bumble Bee
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Flickr Creative Commons/Smithsonian's National Zoo

CHICAGO — A very rare visitor to Chicago is now federally protected under the Endangered Species Act.

This week, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the Rusty Patched Bumble Bee as an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act. It's the first bee in the continental United States to receive that level of protection, according to Xerces Society, which works to protect invertebrates and their habitat. Giving the bees endangered species protection allows for extra protection on the "ecosystems upon which they depend."

The bee is occasionally found in local parks and gardens, according to Allen Lawrance, Living Invertebrate Specialist at Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum. Lawrance noted the museum and Chicago Academy of Sciences are lead partners in trying to save Rusty Patched Bumble Bee habitat, which includes woodlands and prairies, through the Chicago Wilderness Priority Species project.

"The decision by U.S. Fish and Wildlife highlights the immediate and dire need for such programs," said Lawrance, of Lakeview.

The only photo of the endangered Rusty Patched Bumble Bee that the Notebaert Nature Museum has in its library. [Caroline Hlohowsky]

The Rusty Patched Bumble Bee was once common throughout the Upper Midwest, Northeast and Appalachian portions of the United States, but in the last 25 years the species has lost 87 percent of its range, according to Xerces Society. The fish and wildlife service said its range had included 28 states, but since 2000, it has been reported in only 13, including Illinois.

Population declines are attributed to "pathogen spillover, habitat loss and pesticide use," according to Chicago Wilderness.

Unlike honey bees, which produce honey, bumble bees do not, but they are far better pollinators, according to Robin Delapena, Collections Assistant and Digitization Specialist at Field Museum. Delapena, who has a pair of beehives on the roof of her Horner Park West home, said bumble bees are larger and stronger than honey bees. Their size and power of wing vibrations allow them to disperse pollen off flowers of plants like tomatoes and potatoes that honey bees don't have the strength to do.

Delapena noted that bumble bees are also native to Illinois, unlike honey bees, which probably were introduced by English settlers in the early 1600s.

"The majority of attention is focused on honey bees, but people need to think about our native pollinators," Delapena said.

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