A surprising find: Imperiled rusty patched bumble bee discovered at Oheyawahi/Pilot Knob during survey

By Leslie Pilgrim

In recent years, the once-common rusty patched bumble bee (Bombus affinis) has vanished from almost 90 percent of its historic range. Experiencing declines so dramatic that the species may be on the brink of extinction, Bombus affinis was recently listed as an endangered species by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Amazingly, in July, 2016, a single rusty patched bumble bee was detected during a bumble bee field survey at Oheyawahi/ Pilot Knob. The find was thrilling for the partners participating in this ongoing monitoring project—The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation and Great River Greening—as well as the citizen scientist volunteers who helped with the “catch and release” effort that day.

An elusive rusty patched bumble bee on a bee balm flower, in a photography by Sarah Foltz Jordan, Xerces Society

An elusive rusty patched bumble bee on a bee balm flower, in a photograph by Sarah Foltz Jordan, Xerces Society

Minnesota’s Bumble Bees in Decline

While the non-native honey bee is the bee most people are familiar with, an estimated 400 bees native to Minnesota provide important pollination services.  Among these native bees, 20 species are bumble bees—about one-fourth of which are struggling to survive. According to Sarah Foltz Jordan, pollinator conservation specialist with the Xerces Society, bumble bees are a priority group to examine at Oheyawahi/ Pilot Knob for several reasons. “In addition to their well-documented declines and high conservation need, bumble bees are unique among bees in that they can be identified, species in hand, without having to collect them and place them under a microscope,” says Foltz Jordan. “They are also very charismatic—the Teddy bear of the insect world—and people get really excited about looking for them and doing things in their own yards to help these bees.”

The Oheyawahi/ Pilot Knob surveys, made possible with support from the Minnesota Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund, were designed to educate citizens in bumble bee identification and conservation strategies. They will also help in understanding the range, relative abundance, and foraging preferences of Minnesota’s bumble bees.

Oheyawahi, the hill much visited (by pollinators)

The restoration objective of Oheyawahi/ Pilot Knob was to reintroduce the native vegetation that was most likely present before European settlement, as respectfully as possible given the sacredness of the site. Now, with over a decade of stewardship, Oheyawahi/ Pilot Knob has become a crucial refuge for pollinators. “Pilot Knob is a restored prairie with high quality forage, which provides large amounts of nutrition to several pollinator species, including bumble bees,” explains Sean Wickhem, Great River Greening’s project manager for bumble bee surveys. Because Oheyawahi/ Pilot Knob runs alongside the Minnesota River Valley, its location is key in helping maintain and repopulate natural areas along the river’s path. “The next question is,” continues Wickhem, “why haven’t we consistently documented the rusty patched bumble bee on this site, and how can we alter our restoration and management of Pilot Knot to increase their presence?”

Reversing the decline

The combination of habitat loss, pesticide use by homeowners and farmers, climate change, and the proliferation of pathogens and parasites has threatened the viability of many bee species worldwide.  Oheyawahi/ Pilot Knob offers wildlife an insecticide-free environment, nesting habitat for a wide range of pollinators, and an abundance of native floral resources. Wild bergamot, asters, and goldenrods are among the bumble bee favorites growing at Oheyawahi/ Pilot Knob.

Citizen scientists, like the ones who volunteered the day the elusive rusty patched bumble bee was observed, are invaluable in aiding this research. Volunteers are always needed to help with surveys around the Twin Cities metropolitan area.  Another great way to help bumble bees is to participate in Xerces’ Pollinator Citizen Science Projects, including Bumble Bee Watch, or The Minnesota Bumble Bee Survey. “Before we can help these bees, we need to know where they are, and we need more information,” states Elaine Evans.  Evans is an entomologist who helped identify the rusty patched bumble bee at Oheyawahi/ Pilot Knob, and is founder of the Minnesota Bumble Bee Survey, an organization dedicated to monitoring rare and declining Minnesota bumble bees.

Citizen scientists at work; photograph by Sarah Foltz Jordan, Xerces Society

Citizen scientists at work; photograph by Sarah Foltz Jordan, Xerces Society


“Everyone can help bees, right now,” says Foltz Jordan, who suggests the following:

1) Plant native wildflowers, including species that bloom spring through fall.

2) Plant native shrubs and trees for early season bloom.

3) Leave brush, logs, and unmown grasses around the yard to create nesting habitat.

4) Avoid raking whenever possible. Leaf litter is important for overwintering queen bees.

5) Avoid pesticide use.

6) Display pollinator habitat signage, and talk to neighbors about what you are doing for pollinators.

Click here to watch a brief video describing the discovery of the rusty patched bumble bee at Pilot Knob.

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Mendota Heights receives $75,000 grant for removal of overhead power lines on Oheyawahi/Pilot Knob

National Trust for Historic Preservation and American Express announced on November 10, 2011, that Historic Pilot Knob will receive a Partners in Preservation grant for $75,000 to help restore the natural landscape of the hill. The money will be used to remove utility poles and powerlines that bisect the site. This restoration work will be managed by the City of Mendota Heights, which maintains the land as a public open space site.

It is not anticipated that any of the original soil of Oheyawahi will be disturbed. Utility poles and lines that brought electricity to houses formerly on the hill will be removed. Lines that feed the lights on state Highway 55 will be buried 2-3 feet deep under the road that was once paved and is now vacated. The lines will be laid in aggregate material brought in when the road was constructed, and will run parallel to the water main under the old road bed. Removal of the power lines will be done in 2012.

Twenty-five historic sites in the Twin Cities metro area competed for a portion of the $1,000,000 grant from American Express. A voting competition was held on Facebook for three weeks earlier this fall. In addition to the voting results, an advisory panel of civic leaders and preservationists considered a site’s needs and role in its community. Twelve other historic sites received significant funding for restoration.

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Pocket Guide to Oheywahi/Pilot Knob Has Been Published

The Pilot Knob Preservation Association’s new Pocket Guide to Oheyawahi/Pilot Knob has been published and an interactive, digital version is available on this website. Work and expenses for the pocket guide were supported by a Minnesota Historical and Cultural Heritage Grant from the Minnesota Historical Society earlier this year. The small brochure will introduce the cultural, historical, spiritual and ecological importance of this Dakota County landmark.

Minnesota Historical and Cultural Heritage Grants are made possible by the Minnesota Legislature from the Arts and cultural Heritage Fund through the Minnesota Historical Society. The fund was created with passage of the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment to the Minnesota Constitution in November 2008. The grants are awarded to support projects of enduring value for the cause of history and historic preservation across the state. PKPA also thanks the City of Mendota Heights and Dakota County for their support.

A pdf version of the guide, which can be viewed or printed in Adobe Acrobat Reader, is available here. Paper copies of the guide can be ordered by emailing info@pilotknobpreservation.org with your request.

PKPA received the grant from the Minnesota Historical Society in the spring of 2010. Through the summer and fall project director Chris Soutter, historian Bruce White, and other members of PKPA worked together to gather the information and write the guide. Below (from left to right) PKPA members Cher Fields and Jeanne Hollingsworth discuss the guide, onsite, with Chris Soutter.

As vegetation is restored on Oheyawahi, the hill provides opportunities to see many beautiful sites, which were documented by PKPA during the summer of 2010. In July an admiral butterfly perched in a field filled with wild bergamot and black-eyed susan.

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Chief Arvol Looking Horse leads pipe ceremony

Chief Arvol Lookinghorse, 19th generation Keeper of the Sacred White Buffalo Calf Pipe, led a pipe ceremony on Pilot Knob on October 3, 2009. Chief Lookinghorse has spent his life working for religious freedom, protection of sacred sites, and cultural survival. He was aided by Sheldon Wolfchild from Lower Sioux, Chris Leith from Prairie Island, Melvin Grey Owl from Crow Creek, and Melvin Lee from Santee, who all spoke about the importance of preserving Dakota sacred sites. Chief Looking Horse stated that sacred sites are the “power points, the grid,” for Dakota, Lakota, and Nakota peoples. After the ceremony there was a feast/lunch and wopida (a “thank you” giveaway) in which the speakers and visitors were honored. It was a cloudy day, but at various times the sun shone brightly on those gathered and two eagles flew overhead.

Pilot Knob, October 3, 2009, including from left to right, Sheldon Wolfchild, Chris Leith, Arvol Looking Horse, Melvin Grey Owl, and Melvin Lee. At the time the picture was taken, Melvin Lee was speaking eloquently about the effort that it had taken to prevent development on Pilot Knob and the need to do the same for other sacred places.

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A Message from Gail Lewellan and Linda Brown, Co-Chairs of PKPA, October 2009

Dear Friend of Pilot Knob/Oheyawahi,

We are filled with wonder at the accomplishments since the Pilot Knob Preservation Association was formed six years ago:

–a proposal for building 157 townhomes on the hill was defeated;

–the 25 acre development site is now open to the public and owned by the City of Mendota Heights;

–the ten-year site restoration to an oak savannah ecosystem is underway with thousands of flowers in bloom, eleven oaks and 2,000 acorns planted;

–two interpretive signs tell the story, in Dakota and English, of the unique history and sacred significance of Pilot Knob/Oheyawahi;

–an overlook that recognizes the seven council fires of Dakota people will soon be installed by the City of Mendota Heights and Great River Greening.

When Chief Lookinghorse was last on Pilot Knob, he and Chris Leith gave the hill a new name: Wotakuye Paha, the hill of all the relatives. Please join the relatives in celebration and thanksgiving for the remarkable events that you have contributed to.


Gail Lewellan and Linda Brown

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