Pollinator Activities Take Flight, Find Rare Bumble Bee in Northeastern Wisconsin

Release Date: Jan 24, 2013   Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest

Contact(s): Nicole Shutt, (715) 276-6333

Monarch Butterfly

Something’s abuzz on the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest’s Lakewood-Laona Ranger District in north east Wisconsin.

Imagine a place where the air is laden with intoxicating scents of flowers in bloom, a place where treasures wait to be found, where countless butterflies swirl like fluttering jewels amidst bees and diurnal moths, all against a backdrop of vibrant green.

Sound too good to be true?

Well, it exists on the CNNF: the Catwillow Monarch Area (CMA)!  It’s a place where the Forest Service is focusing on pollinators and the native plants that support them, and it’s full of surprises.

The latest surprise was the July 18, 2012 CMA observation of a formerly widespread bee that’s now rare: the Yellow-banded Bumble Bee (Bombus terricola), shown in this photo’s upper right corner nectaring on Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) with a Dunn Skipper (Euphyes vestris), two male Monarchs (Danaus plexippus), and a Krautwurm’s Fritillary (Speyeria cybele krautwunni).

The CMA is a gated north-south trail with five tiers of openings in hardwood forest by a bog northeast of Laona.  One of many such systems in the Catwillow Wildlife Management Area, this part was originally a regularly mowed Hunter Hiking Trail.  Over a decade after the last mowing, Scott Anderson, wildlife biologist, found a surprising amount of milkweed there.

Nicole Shutt, biological science technician, surveyed the system in autumn 2010 and declared it the Lakewood-Laona Ranger District’s best known habitat for both the Monarch and West Virginia White (Pieris virginiensis) butterflies because of abundant populations of their obligate host plants: Common Milkweed in the openings and Broad-leaved Toothwort (Cardamine diphylla)in the trails and forest.  Dubbed the Catwillow Monarch Area, it became a Monarch Joint Venture project and a pilot for the CNNF’s Native Plant and Pollinator Program: an opportunity to show the benefits (to many species) of managing openings specifically for native pollinators by encouraging native plants.

Surveys in 2011 proved the CMA harbored Monarchs and West Virginia Whites, along with a surprising abundance of fritillaries and other butterflies, bees, moths, and dragonflies, plus a spring ephemeral display.  But even openings with milkweed lacked pollinators when no plants were blooming.  Locally collected seeds from 27 native nectar and host plants were sown that autumn in the 41 openings to help provide flowers spring through fall. More sowings are planned this year through 2018.

In 2012, herbicide spot treatments for non-native invasive species began, and Great Lakes Restoration Initiative funding hired Susannah Rogers and Ashley Spink to temporarily join Nicole at the CMA.

On July 18, 2012, every CMA opening with blooming milkweed hosted a flurry of insects, and the three technicians tallied and photographed the activity.  That autumn, Ashley came upon survey photos Susannah snapped depicting a bee with a fringe of yellowish hairs on its abdomen that the technicians thought could be a Yellow-banded Bumble Bee.  John Ascher confirmed the identification on BugGuide.net.

B. terricola survives at the Catwillow Monarch Area today because less frequent mowing can result in more stable pollinator habitat.

Instead of periodically mowing entire openings to prevent tree growth, we mow paths through CMA openings to connect trails.  We follow The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation guidelines: mow in autumn with a high height and reduced speed to avoid damaging small topographical features.  We allow invading woody vegetation to move openings towards savannah habitat; and we hand-cut when it’s time to reset the successional clock.

We survey for pollinators, other wildlife, plants, and phenology to learn who uses these openings and which plants support them.  We’ll compare the CMA to gated systems with mowed openings, and use results to guide management.  If these pollinator-preferred forbs (listed by bloom start time, together flowering May to October) are native to your area, consider adding native plants such as Wild Columbine  (Aquilegia canadensis), Common Milkweed, Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta), Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), Flat-top Aster (Aster umbellatus), Grass-leaved Goldenrod (Euthamia graminifolia), Purple Giant Hyssop (Agastache scrophulariaefolia) and sunflowers (Helianthus spp.) to your wildflower garden.

In 2013, we’ll begin promoting the CMA as a Celebrating Wildflowers site and Monarch Habitat Area, with possible future designation as an Invasives Free Zone, Nature Watch site, and/or Watchable Wildlife site since the Gray Jay (Perisoreus canadensis) and other critters also live here.

We can’t wait to see the CMA’s next surprise