By Chandler Dolan
Bumble Bee Technician
The scene: It’s a classically humid, July afternoon. A gaze across the prairie shows patches of yellows and pinks, suggesting the presence of yellow coneflower and wild bergamot. As the heat intensifies, the birds and bison seem to slow. You stand quietly, intently listening to the sounds the grassland offers. Suddenly, a loud buzz tears through the patterns of bird melodies and katydid song. A familiar yellow and black face emerges from under a canopy of partridge pea: a bumble bee.
Bumble bees are familiar insects. The shaggy combination of yellow and black (and sometimes orange) hairs with a plump, round build makes these insects nearly unmistakable. Their role of pollinating beautiful wildflowers and food plants alike is an important ecosystem service they provide us, free of charge. Their friendly buzz and frantic foraging suggest a healthy ecological system. Unfortunately, bumble bees face an uncertain future. Through habitat loss, pesticide use, and disease, many bumble species have experienced significant decline and are becoming increasingly rare.
Thankfully, Nachusa gives refuge to three threatened species of bumble bees, including the critically endangered rusty-patched bumble bee (Bombus affinis). In 2017, Bethanne Bruninga-Socolar discovered the presence of the rare bumble bee at Nachusa in the form of a foraging worker. This was a great discovery, as the current distribution of the species is fairly unknown. To know this species was living at Nachusa was special and has given rise to new research opportunities and questions to be answered.
With the new motivation of a federally endangered species in the Grasslands, new projects have begun! The 2020 season is the first season we have boots on the ground (in the form of me!) to monitor bumble bee abundance and diversity across all species of bumble bee at Nachusa. We start with simple questions: What species of bumble bees are here? How many of them are there? What flowers are they using? By answering these questions, we can start to form new questions and learn about the Grasslands. This season is all about exploration, experimentation, and just getting a sense of the bumble bees at Nachusa.
Endangered Bumble Bees of Nachusa Grasslands
As mentioned, the rusty-patched bumble bee is a federally recognized endangered species in the United States. In fact, it is the first bumble bee species to be listed on the United States Endangered Species Act. This characteristic bumble bee sports a unique “rusty patch” on its abdomen, which is one of its best identification traits, hence the name. The decline of this species is somewhat mysterious and very sudden. Prior to 1996, this species was abundant throughout much of the Midwest and Northeastern U.S. After 1996, the species tumbled into rapid decline and is now extremely rare in the Northeast. Most records of this species today are sporadically reported in the Midwest, but at very low rates.
In the seven weeks I have been surveying, I have detected two rusty-patched bumble bee workers at Nachusa. To know this species is still present and not extinct is a great discovery alone. But understanding the way it uses the mosaic and where it chooses to nest is still up for question, and is difficult to answer with such sparse sightings. Our first sighting occurred very early in the field season. In fact, it was the fourth day of surveying! Seeing a single rusty-patched worker busily foraging on beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis) was a great way to start the season. Our second was about a month later on July 17th. Upon my arrival to a hill to do some quick exploration, the very first bee I spotted was the rare but distinct bumble bee methodically feeding on wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa). I held back tears of joy as I quickly netted the bee for proper identification.
Nachusa also houses two other declining bumble bee species: the golden yellow bumble bee (Bombus fervidus) and the American bumble bee (Bombus pensylvanicus). Bombus fervidus has quickly become one of my favorite species, as its striking yellow abdomen and bold, black thorax band are impossible to miss. While these species are not recognized as endangered by the federal government, they have documented declines that warrant them a “vulnerable to extinction” assessment by the IUCN Redlist. I’m happy to report that these species are detected regularly and seem to like certain parts of the Grasslands. One day we hope to answer these questions: What parts of Nachusa are these vulnerable species found, and why? What makes one patch of habitat more suitable than another?
Bumble bees are interesting. Their familiarity provides a calming energy, as their small wings effortlessly lift their seemingly oversized bodies and loads of pollen to provide for the nest and its offspring. But despite how recognizable they may be, there is still much to learn about them. Simple things such as their habitat and favorite flowers are yet to be fully understood. A closer look into the world of bumble bees reveals a world of individual decision-making by our hairy friends that we are working hard to better understand. One of the first steps to conserving a species is to better our understanding of them. With the first long-term bumble bee surveying season at Nachusa underway, we hope to better understand our bumble bees and to one day provide them the best habitat we can. To lose a species is to lose a piece of a puzzle. Once gone, the picture will never be the same, with a hole no other piece can fill.
*** UPDATE: On July 29th and 30th, two more rusty-patched bumble bees were observed at Nachusa! That makes a total of 4 observations this season! ***
Dr. Bethanne Bruninga-Socolar's ongoing research on Nachusa's bumble bees is supported with a Scientific Research Grant from the Friends of Nachusa Grasslands.
If you would like to play a part in helping the bees at Nachusa Grasslands, consider joining our Thursday or Saturday Workdays or giving a donation to the Friends of Nachusa Grasslands. Donations to Friends can be designated to Scientific Research Grants.
Chandler Dolan graduated from the University of Northern Iowa in December of 2019. Throughout Chandler's career as a young biologist, they have been continually drawn to endangered species ranging from the rusty-patched bumble bee to neotropical parrots and migratory songbirds. As Chandler dives deeper into the world of bumble bees, they hope to pursue bumble bee conservation as a long-term goal for graduate school.
By Jess Fliginger
In 2013, Dr. Holly Jones started conducting a long-term research project at Nachusa Grasslands on quantifying the effects of disturbance-related management strategies on small mammal populations at restored and remnant prairie sites. The reintroduction of bison in 2014 allowed for a powerful before and after bison impact study that documented the effects of bison grazing on the small mammal communities. Data collected on species responses to bison, prescribed fire frequency, restoration age, and vegetation composition will inform decisions regarding abundance and biodiversity for small mammals. Small mammals play important roles in the food web by influencing vegetation structure through herbivory and seed predation, as well as serving as prey for predator species. So far, plant communities with bison grazing are becoming more diverse and more abundant with small mammals. In the beginning, Dr. Jones ran the small mammal project by herself for a year until she was able to pass it on to her Master’s student Angela Burke in 2014. It was quite a challenge to run the project on her own, and volunteers have become an essential component to keep it going. Over the years, we have had more than 100 volunteers participate to help check traps in the morning and reset traps in the afternoon.
On the first day of small mammal trapping, or as we like to call it “smammaling”, we prep 150 metal Sherman traps by baiting them with peanut butter and oats. Our small army of volunteers, 3 or 4 people, create an assembly line, with one person spreading just a dab of peanut butter on the backplate and the other sprinkling a small pinch of oats inside. Once all traps have been prepped, we start stacking rows of them, Tetris style, in the back of Scarlet, our NIU mule.
Out of the four seasons we sample for small mammals, August and October have the tallest vegetation, making it difficult to locate our poles. We flag the highest plant we can find nearby; for me it’s usually prairie dock or good ol’ big bluestem, and we try to navigate our way through the meandering paths of the tallgrass prairie jungle."
We take off to set 25 traps at six of our 5x5 grid sites, hoping our plans don’t get foiled by any bison delays or strange weather. Each site has flagged poles to indicate where the trap must be set; however, finding them can sometimes be a challenge. Bison love using our poles as backscratchers, and they are often found sprawled across the prairie. At each pole we place an open trap where it will sit until an unsuspecting critter passes by and catches a whiff of irresistible Jif.
The mice spend the night at their “mouse hotel” feasting on peanut butter and oats until we are back to process them in the morning.
I always get a rush of excitement as I walk up to a trap and notice the door is closed. When I peek inside the trap, I am usually able to see a little face staring back at me. Occasionally, I’ll get a trigger-no-capture and my excitement will fade to dissatisfaction. Likewise, thieves are a constant problem. Some especially small, speedy daredevils are able to run in to the trap, take some quick bites of peanut butter, and run out without triggering it. We keep tabs on which traps have been thieved and adjust/replace them accordingly.
To process the small mammals, we record the weight and take measurements on the right hind foot, tail, and body using a caliper. In addition, we determine their sex, age, reproductive status, species, and PIT tag number. Some of the species we have captured at our sites and record data on include thirteen-lined ground squirrel, deer mouse, white-footed mouse, western harvest mouse, meadow jumping mouse, prairie vole, meadow vole, and masked and short-tailed shrews. The most common species we capture is the deer mouse, Peromyscus maniculatus. Depending on whether it’s a new capture or recap, we will carefully insert a PIT tag underneath its skin – similar to microchipping your pet – as a way to keep track of its movements, survival, and reproduction throughout the study. It’s always a treat when we have an overwinter or recapture from the previous year; they were the lucky ones to survive the long cold winter! Finally, we provide complimentary haircuts to all new buddies and collect the hair to run in the stable isotope lab. The information gathered from each sample result can tell us about their diet and role in the food web.
Since 2015, I have been volunteering with Dr. Jones’ small mammal project. This year I was given the opportunity to help run the project and process the small mammals until her incoming PhD student, Erin Rowland, arrived. I took up the challenge, and with practice I became a pro. I would say my favorite part of the job is meeting the volunteers and training them how to be great smammalers. I enjoy acting as a Nachusa tour guide to all newcomers, young and old.
Although anyone is welcome to volunteer, the majority of our helpers are undergraduate students who enjoy a break away from the classroom. Volunteering for the small mammal project gets you to spend time outside, which is beneficial to your health and well-being. It inspires the public to engage in the scientific process, appreciate native plants and animals, and meet others who care about our environment. Furthermore, it helps develop team building skills that are important for any job setting. Volunteers are the heart and soul of the small mammal project, and without them I’m not sure it would be able to persist. There is a lot to accomplish within the 12 consecutive days we are at Nachusa smammaling, and any help is greatly appreciated! If you are interested in volunteering, please contact Erin Rowland. To me, the small mammal project is all about making new and old friends — volunteers and mice alike.
“Today you can stand anywhere on the 23-acre plot and see all the way across it in any direction. Previously, the woody invasives blocked the view. Now the prairie species will have space and sunlight to bloom and thrive.”
--Mike Carr, Orland Prairie Steward
By Dee Hudson
Nachusa Grasslands Steward
Asian honeysuckle and autumn olive brush were quite thick throughout a 23-acre plot of Nachusa’s Orland Prairie. Ten years of mowing and burning these invasives had little effect, as the shrubs kept resprouting. As long as these invasive shrubs remained, the native plants were suppressed. In order to help restore Orland Prairie, Friends of Nachusa Grasslands applied for a stewardship grant from the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation. The objective of the Community Stewardship Challenge Grant Program of the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation is to encourage increased community participation in the care of natural areas and wildlife habitat managed by non-profit organizations in Illinois.
The grant provided support to Friends of Nachusa Grasslands in a several ways:
A Cash Donation Match Challenge
Volunteer Stewardship Challenge
Social Media Challenge
Come see Orland Prairie! Join steward, Mike Carr, as he leads a tour of the project site at Nachusa Grasslands’ Autumn on the Prairie on Saturday, September 21, from 2:45 to 4 pm. See the areas newly-cleared of dense brush and enjoy the young plants moving into the bare ground.
Friends of Nachusa Grasslands would like to thank Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation for motivating and supporting our organization in this invaluable effort.
By Jeff Cologna and Joy McKinney
Each steward at Nachusa Grasslands has a fascinating personal tale, often involving stories of sacrifice, setbacks, and success. Together, with the resources of The Nature Conservancy, volunteers, donors, and Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation, stewards work hard to ensure Illinois prairie is not merely a fading memory, but a lasting reality for all future generations. Mike Carr, one of these amazing stewards, shared a few stories from the past with us. The following paragraphs highlight those early days.
Mike’s story began as a boy whose father loved the great outdoors but "bemoaned endlessly about all the invasive plants.” His father, Francis Carr, taught him about invasive plants and how to identify trees by their bark, enabling him to identify them all year ‘round. Little did he know back then that these skills and a disdain for invasives would serve him so well at Nachusa.
In the Spring of 2010, soon after “getting away” from the city of Chicago, Mike found himself “banging on the door” of Bill Kleiman, Nachusa’s Director. Early in their discussions, Bill explained how critical fire is to restoring and maintaining healthy prairie landscapes. Experience managing fire became a top priority. Mike quickly completed a 40-hour online fire certification class leading to an absolute “love of fire” as well as the acquisition of key skills for participating in controlled burns.
Mike was then challenged by Bill Kleiman and Cody Considine, restoration ecologist at Nachusa, to take on a unit of his very own which would later be named Big Jump. We asked Mike why the 350-acre unit was given this interesting moniker. Apparently, it was the result of a naming contest among stewards. His unit is basically “a long way from the HQ.” Due to the number of high-quality remnants within its boundaries, Mike’s restoration activities have opened up the landscape, enabling unseen natives such as porcupine grass, arrow leaf violets, and blue-eyed grass to show themselves, surprising and delighting Mike. Every year he discovers new “surprises” that weren’t there before. “The whole hillside of one remnant is filled with violets in the spring and another remnant with Carolina rose, bird’s foot violet, comandra, and pussy toes.
Mike focused his efforts on a 23-acre plot within the unit which is now known as “Orland Prairie." In the beginning of restoration, Mike shared that Orland Prairie needed some kind of push to get rid of all the invasive woodies (shrubs and bushes) so the prairie could find its way. In the last 10 years, Nachusa’s Fecon mower was used to knock down the invasive woodies. Seed, collected by combine, was then spread on the area, beginning the restoration process. Unfortunately, woodies continue to dominate.
Restoration efforts continue at Orland Prairie with the help of a generous grant from the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation. The grant is being used in part to purchase herbicide for continued eradication of the highly invasive autumn olive plant and other woodies. The application of the basal bark herbicide is highly effective. “If you stand next to an autumn olive and you tell it that you’ll come back with basal bark . . . it’ll just die!” Mike quipped. Basal bark applications have been used to successfully eradicate infestations of autumn olives, which at one time stood up to 15 ft high and covered the entire 23 acres. Mike shared that the herbicide is most effective after a fire.
Mike Carr is just one of the many dedicated men and women who have committed to making Nachusa Grasslands more than just a memory. We would like to thank Mike’s dad for inspiring him to be patient and dedicated to long term goals and above all, valuing and respecting nature.
Come meet Mike on the March 2nd workday to see the Orland Prairie and experience the whimsical beauty of Nachusa Grasslands!
By Dee Hudson
What does a degraded landscape look like?
Take a good look at the image below. The two volunteer stewards can barely walk through this dense thicket of invasive bushes. The sheer number of invasives that reside here have crowded out most other species, and as a result, have limited the possible diversity. In addition, when leafed out during the summer time, the bushes block the sunlight from reaching the ground and therefore discourage native species from growth.
As Orland Prairie’s land steward, Mike Carr led the December 8 Saturday workday into this gnarly section in the attempt to eradicate the invasive brush. At the end of the day, each volunteer stewardship hour was carefully logged, because Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation has approved this particular habitat as a grant project. When 400 volunteer hours of habitat care have been recorded, Illinois Clean Energy will present $4,000 to Friends of Nachusa Grasslands.
What species are targeted for removal?
How is the brush eradicated?
On this workday the volunteers treated the brush with basal bark applications. The treatment was applied to the base of the bush with either a backpack sprayer or a hand sprayer.
What does a restored landscape look like?
This landscape is also a part of the 23-acre grant project. The area once looked very degraded, but with basal bark treatments and prescribed fire, the brush understory was removed. Then prairie seeds were planted and the photo above shows the successful restored results. This area has been given new life and is on its way to recovery.
Who restores these habitats?
Anyone who wants to make a difference can help with restoration!
Next ICE Grant Workday
Join fellow volunteers on December 22, 2018 for the next ICE Grant Saturday workday. Meet at Nachusa’s Headquarters Barn before 9 am and be ready to restore habitat. If you have any questions about the workdays, check the Friends of Nachusa Grasslands website.
Let’s make a difference together!
By Mary Meier
What do 400 hours of volunteer stewardship, $7,000 in donations, and 100 hours of social media posts have in common? They are all components of the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation’s Community Stewardship Challenge Grant Program.
The Foundation encourages increased local support and participation in the care of habitat by providing grant funds as a match to local dollars raised and labor donated.
Friends of Nachusa Grasslands has been approved for grants totaling $32,000 if we fulfill requirements under several categories:
Friends chose Nachusa’s Orland Prairie, a prairie remnant on the west end of the Big Jump Unit, for its habitat restoration project site. Volunteers have already begun attacking the 23-acre parcel that is heavily infested with the invasive shrub autumn olive. Non-native honeysuckle is also rampant in the area.
Mike Carr, Orland Prairie volunteer steward, who has been working on the unit for several years, says,
“I really enjoy brush clearing, especially the nasty stuff.”
Both autumn olive and honeysuckle are some of the most tenacious foes that Nachusa’s volunteers battle.
According to The Nature Conservancy, “Autumn olive is quickly becoming one of the most troublesome shrubs in central and eastern United States. High seed production, high germination rates and the sheer hardiness of the plant allow it to grow rapidly.”
In addition, a University of Illinois extension website says, “Controlling bush honeysuckle is vital to the preservation of native ecosystems in Illinois. Bush honeysuckle currently poses one of the greatest threats to forest ecosystems in Illinois.”
Saturday workday crews and individual volunteers are using herbicides to kill the woody brush invading Orland. Later this year and early next year, we will over-seed the area with native species collected during the harvest season, conduct prescribed burns, re-contour unsightly gravel pits, and remove non-native trees and large debris from fence rows at the site.
Our long-term goal is to establish a diverse prairie planting on the 23-acre site, providing for long-term weed management and suppression of non-native shrubs and trees. Ongoing stewardship efforts, including volunteer labor, herbicide application, and controlled burns, will gradually help integrate the target area into the surrounding habitat.
How can you help Friends earn the stewardship grant? Volunteer for a Saturday brush clearing workday at Orland Prairie — the next one is on June 9. During the summer and fall, you can also help collect prairie seeds for Orland from the preserve. The Friends Social Media Team uses Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and our website to promote volunteer opportunities.
You can also follow Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation’s Community Stewardship Challenge Grant Program on Facebook and Twitter to learn more about the Foundation.
I am a nature photographer, a freelance graphic designer, and steward at Nachusa's Thelma Carpenter Prairie. I have taken photos for Nachusa since 2012.
I have been a high school French teacher, registered piano technician, and librarian. In retirement I am a volunteer historian at Lee County Historical and Genealogical Society.