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Observe, Learn, Adapt

The buzzing sound grows louder. Curious, I walk closer to the source of the sound. I know they’re in there, but I can’t see them. With phone in hand, I push deeper into the thorny gooseberry shrubs, rest on my knees and wait. Within 5 minutes, I see brown-belted, two-spotted and common Eastern queen bumble bees. Another bee arrives that looks promising. It’s moving too fast and staying too low for me to get a good look. I stretch out under a gooseberry shrub and wildly snap photos. Finally, she stops. I recognize her as a queen rusty patched bumble bee. Click, Click, Click.


For years now, I’ve been wanting to write about the importance of the lowly gooseberry shrub to queen bumble bees. And now that I’ve finally photographed a queen rusty patched bumble bee, an endangered species, feeding on a gooseberry flower, I couldn’t resist the opportunity.

If you ever consider reincarnating as a bumble bee, definitely take the male position. Females, and especially queens, have a hard, tough, short life. At the end of each season, all members of the bumble bee colony die off except for future queens. The fertilized queens find a place, typically underground, to hibernate for the winter. They emerge in the spring and immediately search for a place to build a nest, usually underground, and raise a new colony. They also need food. Because of our degraded ecosystems, early-season blooming flowers that are utilized by queens are in short supply in most areas.


Enter the lowly and often persecuted gooseberry. Bumble bees love this native shrub. They bloom very early and provide critical food resources for queen bumble bees during a time when few other food resources are available.

The gooseberry has inconspicuous, unimpressive flowers. It’s loaded with thorns, and can form thickets so thick that even a hungry goat would think twice before entering. It’s very common on the landscape, recolonizing wooded areas that have been disturbed by humans such as old pastures or logging operations. Because of these unattractive qualities, many land managers remove it while they’re clearing invasive woody species such as European buckthorn, honeysuckle, Japanese barberry …

I know the argument. “It’s too hard to manage for everything.” Natural lands managers have a lot on their plate, and most of it’s not palatable. One of the biggest headaches is how to balance land management practices for at-risk species that have conflicting management needs. Gooseberries can consume a lot of real estate that’s needed for a long list of at-risk plant and animal species that desperately need our help.


This is what I have found that works for me: I don’t remove gooseberry unless that’s all there is and room is needed for other species. When removal is required, leave scattered gooseberry shrubs in locations where they receive some sun. Often, dense thickets of gooseberry under a closed tree canopy don’t bloom, making them useless for queen bumbles. Woodland to prairie edges (transitions) are excellent locations for gooseberry. Often at these “transitions,” we have burn breaks, and it’s easier during burns to protect several shrubs from fire to ensure sufficient blooms. Gooseberry will recover from infrequent fire, but it takes a couple of years before it will bloom again.


If this sounds like a lot of work, it is. Unfortunately, little details matter in this game of ecological restoration. With the rapid degradation of our ecosystems, we are forced to manage for our remaining biodiversity in little isolated pockets of restored land. Please join me in the gooseberry for bumbles campaign.

Oh, by the way, queen rusty patched bumble bees don’t have a rusty patch. Only the females (workers) and males (loafers) have rusty patches. I never said this stuff is easy.

“You can’t manage for everything.” Well, until I understand what “everything” is, I intend to observe, learn and adapt.


queen rusty patched bumble bee on gooseberry

queen rusty patched bumble bee on gooseberry

Female rusty patched bumble bee, note the large pollen baskets on her legs
female (worker) rusty patched bumble bee

male rusty patched bumble bee, note the absence of pollen sacks
male (loafer) rusty patched bumble bee

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Hello Readers - I'm taking some time off from writing. Have a great summer! Cheers, David

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