This blog is devoted to increasing the awareness of our natural world and to the people working to conserve it. Approximately every three weeks, you’ll have the opportunity to vicariously follow along with David Cordray and discover the beauty, excitement, wonderment, and sometimes tragedy of our natural world.

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Bumble Bee Antics

Updated: Oct 4

I want to introduce our guest writer, Debra Noell, my wife and editor of this blog. She's the one that knows how to spot a misplaced modifier, a dangling participle and all the other English grammar rules that have so effectively eluded me my entire life. A great editor makes all the difference, and this blog would not be possible without her. Enjoy her post!


David rushed in the back door, breathless, just as I was sitting down to lunch.

“I found one!” he said.

It was after 2 p.m. on a muggy Saturday in August; I was hungry. I looked at my rapidly cooling lunch, then at David’s eager face. I knew he had been hunting an endangered species, so I dropped my fork, grabbed my camera and said: “Let’s go.”

In our family, David dominates the restoration work on our 100-acre oak savanna, tallgrass prairie, woodland, wetland and pond. I help pay for it, of course, but only join the work when it’s fun – usually controlled burns, seed collection and photography. David, the author of this blog and my husband of 27 years, carries the bulk of the workload. Because of his deep passion and commitment, he pulls the garlic mustard in the rain; he scrambles under prickly brush in 90-degree heat to kill buckthorn; he mows the trails low, just as I like them. So I knew it was on me to capture a photo of the allusive rusty patched bumble bee.

Inspired by a recent visit to our property from Jay Watson, entomologist for the WI-DNR, David had been looking most the day for a rusty patched. Jay found seven species of bumble bees on our land during his survey and said the habitat could easily allure a rusty patched.

On the afternoon of the sighting, David and I hurried toward what we call the Little Field, a small prairie on the edge of a savanna. He first spotted the worker bee in this area on a clump of Joe-pye-weed.

Although focused on my mission, my hands were sweating from humidity and worry. I may only have seconds to get a shot.

“It’s still there!” David said excitedly.

“Where?” I asked, seeing flying insects everywhere.

“Right where I’m pointing – see it?” he said, both thrilled and anxious to prove his finding.

I scanned the 5-foot plants with large purple flowers when I saw the helicopter movement of a large insect. When I zoomed in, I saw the black head, yellow and black stripes, and then definitely, the infamous rusty stripe on the abdomen, or middle part, of her body. Magnified, she looked fuzzy and soft, and then gone.

Wings furiously flying, dashing from petal to petal, she eluded my viewfinder. Her legs carried heavy sacks of orange-colored pollen on each hip.

David was bouncing up and down. “Take the picture! Take the picture.”

“I’m trying,” I said, stressing out.

I learned photography on a 35mm camera, using the eye site – not a screen – to find my target. Steam from heat and excitement fogged my glasses and just as I would see the little beauty in my lens, she would disappear.

“Honey, it could fly away any second! Just take the picture,” David said, trying to be patient.

I started clicking, hoping I captured something. Click. Click. Click.

“She’s so fast!” I kept saying.

“Take it, take it, take it,” David kept saying.

Finally I stopped, took a deep breath, found the patiently posing rusty patched two feet away and focused. We stayed for about 20 minutes while my lens zoomed in, capturing her work, her beauty, and her rare visit.

I knew when I had the money shot.

According to the Bumble Bee Brigade or BBB (http://wiatri.net/inventory/BBB/), the rusty patched bumble bee is extremely rare in Wisconsin. In 2017, the US Fish & Wildlife Service listed the rusty patched as an Endangered Species. There were only 63 sightings of these bees in the state in 2019.

The rusty patched bumble bee is imperiled for numerous reasons, according to the US Fish & Wildlife, including habitat loss and degradation (less prairie flowers, more farmland), intensive and overindulgent farming (use of pesticides, lack of crop diversity, loss of hedgerows), disease (pathogens and parasites potentially brought in by honey bees) and climate change.

So why care? Why do we need bumble bees? They are among the most important pollinators of crops, including my favorite fruit blueberries, also cranberries and almost the only insect pollinators of tomatoes. The economic value of pollination services provided by native insects (mostly bumble bees) is estimated at $3 billion per year in the United States.

I ate lunch next to David while he transferred the 200+ photographs to the computer.

As I calmed down, I processed the significance of having an Endangered Species on our land. When we bought the property we call Savanna Oaks in 2001, The Prairie Enthusiasts assessed it as “severely degraded” due to excessive grazing and what I think of as selfish farming. To me, planting and harvesting for money only, exploiting the land and wildlife, and then walking away when there’s little money left to be made, is selfish.

Because we invested time and treasure, and gave the land back to nature and God, we may help save a species.

How profound, I thought, and felt a flush of hope.

As we looked at the photos - most blurry or just OK – we found five worthy of keeping. We uploaded the pictures onto the BBB website and later, Jay from the DNR confirmed our finding as the rusty patched.

David smiled at me, and we shared a high five. Reward enough for me. We may play different roles in our prairie restoration, but together, we have changed the world.


rusty patched bumble bee - image by Debra Noell

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