HAMPTON, Illinois — The team at the Illiniwek Forest preserve has stumbled on a gold mine. They believe they have a colony of rare Rusty Patched Bumblebees calling their native prairie grass home.
"The first time I saw it, I wasn`t quick enough to get a photo because they move so fast," says park ranger Mike Petersen, who found the first bee. "About two weeks later, I saw it again and was able to snap a couple photos of it."
The Rusty Patched Bumblebee has been on the endangered species list since 2017. Their population drastically declining 87 percent in the last two decades.
They're known for the reddish-brown patches on their back. And that's what Black Hawk College Assistant Professor of Biology Isaac Stewart has been looking for for years. He came out to confirm what Petersen had found.
"That's kind of the holy grail of finds," he explains. "And then to come out here, find it, and not only find one or two but 13 individuals... that means we have a vibrant colony and there's hope to reestablish a colony next spring. It's a great find."
Stewart credits this to Illiniwek's efforts to expand and maintain native prairie grass. The native plants are perfect for supporting all kinds of pollinators.
"If we can get this bee stable here... then maybe it can start to spread more into what its historic range used to be," Stewart says. "And then maybe we will have staved off the extinction of a species."
And Petersen says they're doing everything they can to help these bees. They already have 15 acres of prairie grass and adding more this fall.
The project includes tearing up three acres of turf later this month then planting native grass and plants in September.
"It really affirms if you have the habitat here, the animals will come," Petersen says.
Stewart says they'll monitor the bees, especially into spring, to see how well they're doing.