An unusual antagonist — one with a distinctive striped coat and fuzzy rump — has emerged as construction of the $2 billion Southwest light-rail project forges on.
The rusty patched bumblebee nests, feeds and winters along part of the transit line’s proposed route between downtown Minneapolis and Eden Prairie. The pollinator’s fate has been debated in recent weeks as trees and shrubs are felled and meadows are mowed to make way for the largest public works project in state history.
The dissent from neighbors and elected officials comes just after Gov. Tim Walz designated it Minnesota’s official state bee.
“All the sudden, it’s our state bee and they’re destroying the habitat,” said Mary Pattock, spokeswoman for the Lakes and Parks Alliance, an organization that sued the Metropolitan Council in 2014 to stop the Southwest line.
The bee’s habitat includes the Kenilworth corridor, a popular bike and pedestrian path separating Lake of the Isles and Cedar Lake in Minneapolis that is the subject of the federal lawsuit, which is now on appeal.
Sen. Scott Dibble and Rep. Frank Hornstein, both Minneapolis DFLers, and elected city officials have asked the council to “immediately halt plans to destroy trees and other habitat in the Kenilworth corridor.”
They expressed concern earlier this month that construction would adversely affect the bumblebee, as well as the northern long-eared bat, also endangered.
The Met Council responded that it has taken great care to protect both.
“I am confident the council is living up to its commitment in protecting our natural environment while providing sustainable transportation choices for the region,” Met Council Chairwoman Nora Slawik wrote in a letter to lawmakers.
Once common across the Midwest and East Coast, the rusty patched bumblebee has played a critical role as a pollinator of crops and wildflowers. But its population is on the brink of extinction due to single-crop farming, pesticides, loss of food and habitat, and climate change, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS).
The abundance of the rusty patched bumblebee has plunged 87% in the last 20 years, leaving small, scattered populations in 13 states. Minnesota is one of the few places where the rusty patched variety is regularly sighted, said Elaine Evans, extension educator at the University of Minnesota’s Department of Entomology.
Federal officials said the Southwest project “may affect, but will not likely adversely affect” the bumblebee and the bat. A March 2018 letter to the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) from a USFWS supervisor indicated that clearing the bee-friendly floral habitat near the Kenilworth corridor beginning in mid-September wouldn’t significantly affect the bees.
But Southwest’s construction timeline was delayed, and this April’s mowing of the prairie habitat near the Kenilworth corridor prompted outrage among some residents. “The lack of habitat is killing the bees,” Pattock declared.
Typically, the rusty patched queens emerge from underground forest nests starting in mid-March and migrate to open areas to establish a colony, said Andrew Horton, a biologist at the USFWS office in Bloomington.
Horton said he worked closely with the Southwest project office to “make sure that their clearing would occur at the time when the species wouldn’t be present.”
This spring’s unusually cool weather may have delayed the bees’ migration from forest to prairie patch, he said.
With the patch mowed, the bees likely gravitated elsewhere.
But nesting areas could be affected by light rail construction between April and September, Evans said in an e-mail.
“Nests are newly created each year and cannot be replaced if destroyed,” Evans said. “Next year’s colonies are dependent on this year’s colonies growing large enough that they can produce queens who are the only ones to survive the winter and start colonies next year, so loss of a nest is also a loss of future bees.”
In her response to lawmakers, Slawik said the April mowing of habitat favored by the rusty patched bumblebee was done to discourage their presence.
Plus, she noted a landscape design committee has crafted a plan to restore pollinator planting areas and flowering meadow prairie in the Kenilworth area. Along the entire route, seeds for native plants will be sown to attract bees.
“Once the line is complete, there will actually be more foraging habitat along the corridor,” USFWS’ Horton said. “We see that as a net benefit to the species.”