As new homeowners, my family is buzzing about, unpacking boxes. We are eager though for more buzzing as the weather warms: the buzz of bumble bees and other pollinators when we take Minnesota Zoo’s #Plant4Pollinators Challenge! We are especially excited for the prospect of directly helping our newest Endangered Species: the rusty patched bumble bee.

The Twin Cities are a proud hotbed of pollinator conservation and research. We are also in a unique position as one of the last known strongholds for the rusty patched bumble bee. This fuzzy beauty was once common from Maine to Georgia to North Dakota, but it has recently dramatically disappeared from almost everywhere. The exact causes are not fully understood, but may include habitat loss, new diseases, pesticides, and climate change. It is the first bumble bee to be listed as a U.S. Endangered Species (effective March 21, 2017). Learn more about rusty patched and its new federal protections here, and how to identify it vs other Minnesota bumble bees here and here.  Amazingly, most of the recent observations of rusty patched are within the Twin Cities (and around Madison, Wisconsin)! This presents an opportunity for metro residents to directly help save an endangered species by planting for pollinators, avoiding pesticides, and contributing to citizen science!

The key to attracting bees (like rusty patched), butterflies, and other pollinators is diversity: diversity in the kinds of flowers you provide, diversity in the times of year those flowers bloom, and diversity in the structures you provide for nesting and hibernation.

Our new house is similar to most in the Twin Cities. A quarter acre lot, between other houses, with spots receiving full sun to full shade. Lots of opportunities for native wildflowers to help bumbles! Rusty patched bumble bees particularly need more early spring flowers as new queens go searching for food to start their new colonies. The sunny dry spots will be great for prairie smoke in spring, then wild bergamot (aka bee balm), butterflyweed, purple prairie clover, smooth beard tongue, narrow leaf purple coneflower and fragrant hyssop through summer, and finally blazing stars and New England aster into autumn. Virginia waterleaf, wild columbine, and Dutchman’s breeches will add color to shady spots in spring. In lower spots, summer-blooming Spotted Joe-pye weed and rose (swamp) milkweed will do great. We will also be planting native prairie grasses like little bluestem. Native grasses are caterpillar food for skipper butterflies and shelters for hibernating insects. Little bluestem also adds colorful landscaping accents: blue-green in summer and maroon red in winter. Bare soil underneath the trees and other “areas of opportunistic neglect” will be left for nesting and hibernating bees. We will also let dandelions and clovers bloom: they are often the only early spring flowers available to bees and other pollinators in most urban areas!

We need more eyes looking for rusty patched bumble bees. Importantly, due to the federal endangered species protections, only people permitted by the US Fish and Wildlife Service can catch rusty patched bumble bees. You can still photograph them though, as long as you do not disturb them or their habitat while you are at it. Add your sightings of rusty patched (and ALL other bumble bees!) to Bumble Bee Watch. Don’t live in the Twin Cities? Your help is even more important! We expect there to be undiscovered rusty patched populations in places where we have little data, like rural Minnesota and Wisconsin. Knowing where they remain will help us understand what is needed to bring them back.

Pollinators are central to sustainable and health habitats, and about one third of our food is directly tied to their actions. Lots of little contributions by everyone will help pollinators everywhere, and help ourselves at the same time.

I can’t wait to get started. Now, where did we pack the hand shovels?

Dr. Erik Runquist is a Conservation Biologist at the Minnesota Zoo. He manages the Prairie Butterfly Conservation Program, which is helping save Endangered Minnesota butterflies through rearing and breeding at the Zoo, studying what can be done to bring them back to our prairies, and hopefully the world’s first re-introductions later this summer! He encourages everyone to plant for pollinators, get outside, and explore nature.

Our newest endangered species – the rusty patched bumble bee – gathering nectar from wild bergamot, a great the native wildflower. Keep your eyes open for this bee! Photo: Sarah Foltz Jordan, Xerces Society. Bumble bees often comically squeeze themselves inside the tubular flowers of smooth beard tongue upside-down to reach the nectar. Photo: Erik Runquist, Minnesota Zoo. A tiny native bee pollinating wild columbine in a Twin Cities garden. Photo: Erik Runquist, Minnesota Zoo. A common eastern bumble bee collecting pollen and nectar from the spring-blooming shade-loving Virginia waterleaf. Photo: Erik Runquist, Minnesota Zoo. Spotted Joe-pye weed is a terrific late summer native plant that supports a wide range of pollinators, including Monarchs preparing for migration. Photo: Erik Runquist, Minnesota Zoo. A boreal bumble bee visiting a rough blazing star in August. Photo: Erik Runquist, Minnesota Zoo.