Leaving lawns untreated and allowing flowering plants to grow can help support the endangered rusty patched bumblebee
By Brigit Katz
The plump rusty patched bumblebee, Bombus affinis, once buzzed all across the eastern United States, the upper Midwest and parts of Canada. But today, the chunky critter is endangered, its population reduced by nearly 90 percent. In Minnesota, where the rusty patched bumblebee can still be found, officials have hatched a plan to help bolster the species’ population. As Jessica Leigh Hester reports for Atlas Obscura, the state wants to pay residents to turn their lawns into bumblebee havens.
In late May, Minnesota Governor Tim Walz signed a series of budget bills that included the provision of $900,000 for helping homeowners populate their pristine lawns with bee-friendly plants, like native grasses, creeping thyme and dutch white clover.
“When people look at these flowers, they see a nuisance, they see a weed,” James Wolfin, a graduate student who works at the University of Minnesota’s Bee Lab, tells Esme Murphy of the local WCCO. “I see a forage for pollinators.”
A major threat to the survival of the rusty patched bumblebee—and other bee species—is habitat loss. According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, most of the prairies and grasslands where the bees once roamed have been converted to “monoculture farms or developed areas.” Widespread pesticide use is another problem.
As the USFWS explains:
Bumblebees can absorb toxins directly through their exoskeleton and through contaminated nectar and pollen. Rusty patched bumble bees nest in the ground and may be susceptible to pesticides that persist in agricultural soils, lawns and turf.
To that effect, experts have for some years been encouraging homeowners to leave their grasses untreated and enrich lawns with flowering plants, thereby creating a safe and diverse habitat for bees. Greg Stanley of the Star Tribune reports that Minnesota officials are still working out the kinks of their conservation plan, like how grants will be issued, but the state is expected to cover up 75 percent of the cost of converting participants’ lawns to flowering habitats. The program may be ready to launch by next spring.
“I have gotten a ton of e-mails and so much feedback from people who are interested in this,” State Representative Kelly Morrison, who introduced the bill, tells Stanley. “People are really thinking about how they can help.”
Minnesota has taken other measures to raise awareness about the plight of the rusty patched bumblebee, including making it the state’s official bee. But the lawn conversion plan is also expected to help other species, which in turn may help humans. Bumblebees are vital to the ecosystem, pollinating not only wildflowers, but crops like blueberries, cranberries, apples and tomatoes.
“One-third of every bite you eat is due to a pollinator pollinating that plant,” Wolfin tells Murphy. He adds that even small steps, like letting lawns grow a little longer, can make a difference for the bees.
“We want you to still be able to have that family picnic, we want you to be able to have a catch on the lawn,” Wolfin says, “and we want you to put a little bit of food there to support the pollinators.”