A Rusty Resolution

This essay, by Madelyn Anderson, is one of three winners of the 2023 Sustainability Writing Awards hosted by the Office of Sustainability. You can read more about Madelyn here.  

Where were you on August 18, 2023? Did you feel the air shift? Did you hear your heart still? Did you let your hands cease to shake? I did not. I was lying under the Minnesota sun, not close enough to sense the resolution. But somewhere in Wisconsin, tucked away in a quaint backyard along the river, a rusty patched bumble bee let out a sigh of relief.

If you are not yet acquainted with our invertebrate friends, let me introduce you. The rusty patched bumble bee, scientifically known as Bombus affinis, is a special species. They are identified by their trademark rusty patch on the second segment of their abdomen, as seen in workers and males. These bees also display a unique “thumbtack” pattern, with yellow thorax hair and a T-shaped, black-haired back. Rusty patched bumble bees once roamed a large range in the United States, cross-fertilizing from the East to the Upper Midwest.

Due to climate change, since their prime pollination days in the 1990s, their population has declined by a devastating 87%. Now they live an elusive life in fewer than ten states, joining thousands of other creatures on the endangered species list.

However, there is hope. Scientists everywhere are fighting for this species to be seen. The most crucial conservation efforts for the rusty patched bumble bee include removing invasive species and introducing ideal habitat conditions. Scientists advocate for people to avoid insecticides, overgrown invasive plants, and mowing or raking their entire yards. Instead, they recommend leaving some areas untouched and full of native vegetation. And, perhaps most importantly, conservationists participate in public communication to ensure citizens know the rusty patched bumble bee’s story and name.

Despite the citizens and ecologists working tirelessly to employ these tactics, there have been few signs of rehabilitation. Breaths have been held, hearts have raced, and climate anxiety has run rampant. While some Wisconsin species like the karner blue butterfly have rebounded, in the last twenty years only four rusty patched bumble bee nests have been spotted. Scientists struggled to find hope in the fight for these invertebrates as sightings were slim.

Until this summer, on August 18, that fateful day when scientists came running. Thanks to a Kenosha County resident who was tending their yard and recognized the sweet sounds of bumble bees, a fifth rusty patched nest was found.

While this is inspiring, you may be wondering, “Where is the resolution?” Does this one nest matter in scale to the thousands of lives lost? To answer that, I encourage you to look at your own biology. Sit and stare at your hands. While you might not see a rusty patch, there are colors and lines marking who you are. These hands hold, they help, and they create.

It’s tempting to fall into self-deprecation, to contest that our existence means nothing in the sea of populations. Sometimes, this train of thought can be observed in the current environmental movement, where countless voices are being lost. Overgrown garlic mustard leaves take the form of green tainted dollar bills, insecticides disguise themselves as systemic privileges, and the uniqueness of species is lost under blanket answers.

Would it matter if there were a thousand rusty patched bumble bee nests if we didn’t know their name? Could they thrive if the walls were made of mass-produced plants versus pieces of their native community? As nature teaches us, no. Solution is not synonymous with resolution.

No, a resolution is something different. It’s an answer, yes, but it’s also intent and introspection. Resolution means returning—to the earth, to ourselves, and our connection. For the rusty patched bumble bees living in that backyard, resolution meant having space. And when we create that for others, beautiful things happen. The spirit of resolution grows.

You see, all the events that led to the discovery of the fifth nest are not necessarily solutions. They are not the same, they are not mutually exclusive, and they are not direct. Like the ethos of basic science, these events were born out of curiosity. They involved individual actions, one after the other, each placing a piece in the story. There is no doubt that the climate crisis demands prompt answers and action. But in addition to this applied approach, we must consider the idea of resolution as medicine. There is no reducing carbon without understanding its makeup and the places it presents itself in our everyday lives. There is no saving endangered species without naming the ones living in your own backyard.

Looking back on that day now, do you see the resolution? Can you feel the sigh of relief? Maybe not. Maybe insects aren’t your area of expertise. But if you take the time to call your community by name, I guarantee you something will strike you. You will spend a moment seeking other life in the garden and look down to notice the rust on your hands. And you will feel so excited that you plant a bush, which becomes a home, and then a news article, and then a feature story for a campus sustainability submission, and suddenly that one natural moment has spanned ecosystems.

Where were you on August 18, 2023? Did you feel the air shift? Did you hear your heart still? Did you let your hands cease to shake? I did not. I was lying under the Minnesota sun. And the nest was existing. And the landowner was listening. And the insect ecologist was running. And the rusty patched bumble bee was letting out a sigh of relief.