Thu. Feb 29th, 2024
In Search of Rusty and Other Adventures

Sarah Litterick is a Canadian nature nerd, mushroom hunter, hiking enthusiast, beach bum, animal lover and photographer. Currently, Ella Sarah is furthering her education in hopes of enrolling in the University of Guelph’s Wildlife Biology and Conservation program.

I’ll be honest: I’ve had an intense aversion to insects my entire life, especially stinging ones. I don’t know where this deep fear came from, but more than once I have run away screaming because an insect got too close.

However, in 2015, I joined the board of directors of Friends of Pinery Park and was looking for ways to become more involved in park projects.

That year, I signed up for their first bumblebee survey. The survey was a citizen science project and a joint venture between the park and Wildlife Preservation Canada, along with many other supporters.

I honestly don’t know what made me say “yes” to this project, but I’m glad I did it.

The main goal of the survey was to see if we could locate the rusty-patched bumblebee. This bee was quite common in Canada well into the 1980s, but has since disappeared. The last known sighting in Canada was in Pinery Provincial Park in 2009.

Secondary to finding Rusty? Carry out a comprehensive study of all the species of bumblebees found in the park.

I became a bee believer

I had never done any field work before and things were a little complicated at first.

Putting my fears on the back seat, I had to learn how to keep track of all the equipment needed to hunt bumblebees. Balancing a net, clipboard, camera, vials, cold bag, etc., proved to be a challenge as I made my way around the different survey sites, but I eventually found my rhythm.

Person sitting in the trunk of a van looking at his phone.Taking photographs of my catch while sheltering from a light rain.

Fortunately, my first survey partner was not afraid and showed me how to catch bees. The first time he was terrified, and it took a while for that fear to turn into an adrenaline rush, but he did and I was hooked.

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Establishing our territory

Typically, the survey begins in late June and continues until mid-September.

A survey typically consists of covering a set of four predetermined survey sites once a week. There are four sets of sites to choose from throughout the park.

forest viewThe Pinery oak savannah ecosystem has many sunny openings perfect for summer wildflowers…and bees!

Temperature and weather conditions are taken into account, as bees do not like extremes or rain. Sometimes we must adjust our schedules if the weather does not cooperate.

We are encouraged to work with a partner for safety reasons and spend a minimum of half an hour at each site.

Bumblebees tend to hang out and dine along roadsides and in open grassy areas where wildflowers are abundant.

Our own wiggle dance

On site, we log our start (and end) time, temperature, and percentage of cloud cover. We gathered our gear and walked slowly, scanning the tops of the vegetation for movement.

Sometimes we hear the bees before we see them.

An eastern common bumblebee drinking nectar from butterfly milkweed flowersAn eastern common bumblebee drinking nectar from butterfly milkweed flowers

Ideally, bumblebees would stay still for a photo session, but this is usually not the case. Hence the need for a network. Once captured, we take photographs of the bees’ face, thorax and abdomen and then release them unharmed into their environment.

We then edited and took the series of photographs of each bee and uploaded them to the website called Bumble Bee Watch for verification. A pollinator scientist on the other end will verify our sighting and the species of each bee.

Bumble Bee Watch is a site that anyone can use and covers sightings in Canada and the United States. It can be found at with instructions for use.

Bees in plastic containers in a cooler.Bees in a cold bag

Sometimes, if there are many bees in a place, we will use a cold bag to collect them. It slows them down a bit, which makes photographing them a bit easier.

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It doesn’t hurt them, since it’s only for a short time. It also prevents us from catching the same bee multiple times.

Places of interest to observe

Over a six-year period, I have recorded 881 individual bumblebee sightings at Pinery. I have recorded common eastern, two-spotted, half-black, brown-belted, red-belted, confused, and lemon cuckoo bumblebees.

Left: Brown-belted bumblebee (Bombys griseocollis).  Right: Lemon Cuckoo Bumblebee (Bombus Citrinus).Left: brown-belted bumblebee (Bombys Griseocollis). Right: lemon cuckoo bumblebee (Citrine Bombus)

In 2017, the last bee of the season for me was an American Bumblebee, the first to be recorded on the Pinery!

It wasn’t Rusty, but it was exciting, as this species of bee is also in decline.

American bumblebee (Bombus pensylvanicus).American bumblebee (Bombus pensylvanicus)

Catching the rumor

I don’t know how many miles I’ve traveled or how many hours I’ve logged, but every step and every minute has been filled with wonder and awe.

Now I can walk through a field with grasshoppers jumping around and tune out the buzz of my furry friends. Taking macro photos of bumblebees has also helped calm my fear of insects in general.

I’ve seen many other amazing creatures while surveying that I probably wouldn’t have seen otherwise.

A collage of different bugs. Top left: Pandorus Sphinx caterpillar (Eumorpha pandorus). Top right: False milkweed bug (Turkish Ligeo) kindergarten. Bottom left: Two-striped grasshopper (Melanoplus bivittatus). Bottom right: Tussock moth caterpillar marked in white (leucostigma orgy)

I am getting better at identifying flowers, plants, and trees. I have witnessed the slow, beautiful, miraculous change of Pinery during scouting season throughout the park. I’ve met so many amazing people: scientists, park staff, fellow surveyors, and curious park visitors.

Sara and Trish.

My permanent survey partner, Trish, has become my closest and dearest friend.

I am very grateful to be part of this incredible project. I have learned a lot about bumblebees, ecology and the healing power of nature.

I’ve had some of the best conversations of my life on those trails and laughed a lot along the way. Pinery never disappoints. Bumblebees appear and Mother Nature is always ready to show off if you’re observant.