Minnesota, like all states, has a number of state symbols most every resident know of. We're the only state that has adopted the common loon as our state bird. We also have a state fish (walleye), a state tree (red pine), a state butterfly (monarch), a state drink (milk), a state muffin (blueberry), a state grain (wild rice) and a state flower (showy lady's slipper).

There are other symbols, too, including some proposals for others symbols not yet officially adopted. But we can now add one more state symbol to the official list. Meet Minnesota's newest member of an exclusive list of officially recognized state symbols-the rusty patched bumble bee, Minnesota's state bee.

Other than the status such recognition grants, the official adoption of the rusty patched bumble bee as our state bee serves the dual purpose of calling attention to a species in perilous decline. In fact, the species is endangered. According to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service and a recent Minnesota Public Radio story, the rusty patched bumble bee's historical range has been diminished by some 90 percent. Only 10 states are known to harbor the endangered bee, with Minnesota containing the bulk of the species' remaining range.

The rusty patched bumble bee is a beautiful bee. Sadly, it's the first, but hopefully the last, bee that's been placed on the endangered species list in the Lower 48 states. Typical of bumble bees with alternating colors of yellow and black, the rusty patched bumble bee's diagnostic feature is the small rust-colored "patch" located on the top of its abdomen. An important pollinator, as all bees are, it's not understood why this species, once very common, is now endangered. Most experts agree that pesticides, habitat loss and disease are primary reasons.

Surprisingly, especially when one considers the previous sentence, most populations of the rusty patched bumble occur in urban areas such as the Twin Cities, Iowa City, Madison, Milwaukee and Chicago. Moreover, a significant number of observations of the endangered bumble bee over this past year have come from the Twin Cities. Scientists speculate that because of the abundance of homeowner flower gardens in these high population centers could be a factor favoring rusty patched bumble bees.

My personal relationship and interest of insects, especially bumble bees, goes back to my childhood. Interest was piqued when I enrolled in a graduate level entomology course at the University of North Dakota many years later. And again, this spring, as I began studying bumble bees in my own backyard.

Indeed, on one recent and glorious spring weekend when the sun was shining both days and my dandelion infested lawn was brilliant yellow and full of activity from pollinating and nectar-gathering insects, including bumble bees, I began looking closer to what I was actually observing. I mean real close.

I positively identified four different species of bumble bees that included the American, tri-colored, common eastern, and two-spotted bumble bees. I also identified a species of mason bee, which I watched building its mud nests in one of the hollow bamboo shoots of the bee house I mounted next to my house last spring.

So what can we do to attract more bees to our properties? Habitat is key, but so is limiting the use of pesticides. During this past legislative session when Gov. Walz signed into law the official status of the rusty patched bumble bee, other legislation passed and signed was a grant program that sets aside $900,000 to provide cost-share assistance to qualifying homeowners to incorporate pollinator habitat to their properties. The program, called "Lawns to Legumes," while not currently up and running, will be available for applications in the coming months by the Board of Water Resources. A quick check online details the program, but asks visitors to check the webpage for updates as the program is further developed and ready to accept applications. The program will be ready soon so project implementation can begin in the spring and summer of 2020.

Minnesota is replete with floral and faunal richness. We're lucky to live and recreate in such a place. That the rusty patched bumble bee calls Minnesota its home, their decline and dual recognition as an endangered species and official state symbol is a call of concern and pride that should motivate us all to make its home (and ours) an even better place as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

 

Blane Klemek is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at bklemek@yahoo.com.