It’s not often that 0.2% of an entire species can buzz by in the blink of an eye.
After all, that share of the human species population is equivalent to the size of the 10 most populous states. But on a mild summer day along the 256-acre Pine Bend Bluffs Natural Area in Inver Grove Heights, Minnesota, one small rusty patched bumblebee was defying the odds, carrying with him the hope of an endangered species’ renewal.
Minnesota recently designated the Bombus affinis (as it’s officially known) as the state bee, appropriate for a state that as of last count had 165 out of 471, or 35%, of all the rusty patched bumblebees in the world. Its very presence in a savanna habitat across the highway from Flint Hills Resources’ Pine Bend facility – a Koch company transportation fuels facility in Rosemount, Minnesota – is another promising outcome from the two-decade-long restoration efforts of local volunteers that include Flint Hills employees along with environmental groups Friends of the Mississippi River (FMR) and Great River Greening.
“Bumblebees are often considered a keystone species, essential for the survival of numerous other species,” wrote Karen Schik, senior ecologist, Friends of the Mississippi River, in announcing the discovery.
Like its monarch butterfly brethren, the population of rusty patched bumble bees has fallen by almost 90% in two decades, largely due to habitat loss, according to FMR.
Multiple plant and animal species have been discovered since the work began in 2000 and “may be correlated” with the volunteers’ work, Schik said of the area, which is owned by Flint Hills Resources, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, and Macalester College.
In the last two decades, staff at Flint Hills’ Pine Bend facility have supported the restoration of approximately 200 acres to more natural prairie, forest, and savanna – where an FMR employee doing field work spotted the rare bumblebee. FMR’s work is supported by community and business partners, including Koch Industries and Flint Hills Resources.
“We work with organizations like Friends of the Mississippi River and Great River Greening because this is our home, too,” said Don Kern, Flint Hills Resources, engineering and facilities manager. “It’s a testament to the environmental dedication of the volunteers and our employees.”
Over the last nine years, FMR noted in its 2018 report, 119 bird species have been recorded, including a few red-headed woodpeckers in the oak savanna. In 2018 alone, volunteers managed roughly 90 acres, cutting brush, observing wildlife, and seeding new pollinator plots. Other Wildlife Habitat Council-certified pollinator plots have been constructed at more than a half-dozen Koch company facilities across the country, from Minnesota to Mississippi, including three acres alone at Koch’s headquarters in Wichita, Kansas.
“The work they have done around Pine Bend has led to this remarkable result,” said Heather Rein, Flint Hills Resources’ director of community affairs. “We want this to be the first of many rusty patched bumblebees and other pollinators that make the bluffs their home for generations.”
Update September 21, 2020: A year later, one rusty patched bumblebee was spotted again in the bluffs, one of 113 different species that have been seen there over the last decade.
Keep reading to see more on how Koch employees are helping the iconic monarch butterfly and other pollinators take flight.