Steans Center > For Students > Graduate Fellowships > Steans Graduate Fellowship > Steans Graduate Fellows > Evanston Host Plant Initiative: Native Flowers for the Rusty Patched Bumble Bee: Libby Shafer

Evanston Host Plant Initiative: Native Flowers for the Rusty Patched Bumble Bee

Community Collaborator: Natural Habitat Evanston, Foster Street Urban Agriculture Program


Libby Shafer
Libby Shafer, Spring 2021 Fellow, 

MS in Environmental Science Program, College of Science and Health


I created the Evanston Host Plant Initiative: Native Flowers for the Rusty Patched Bumble Bee for my thesis research in the Environmental Sciences Master’s Program at DePaul and the Steans Graduate Fellowship. For the growing season of 2021, I organized community scientists to help grow and document host plants for the Rusty Patched Bumble Bee in Evanston, Illinois. This project focused on the Rusty Patched Bumble Bee because it is an endangered bee species, whose population has declined at least 87% in the last twenty years (Jacobson et al. 2018). The Chicago region is regarded as an area with a high potential for the Rusty Patched Bumble Bee to occur (FWS 2019).

This Evanston Host Plant Initiative was created in partnership with Natural Habitat Evanston (NHE), a local organization dedicated to advocating for policies and engaging community members to protect and expand habitat. NHE provided extensive support by connecting me with their networks, offering ongoing insights and guidance, and promoting and collaborating on programming. They adopted the project as a part of NHE and plan to continue it and extend it to other pollinators. In May 2021, I began serving on the organization’s newly formed steering committee to help guide their efforts. NHE and other local organizations and listservs included the EHPI in their newsletters and announcements, and the EHPI project were featured in several newspapers, including the Chicago Tribune, Natural Resources Defense Council, Daily Northwestern, Evanston RoundTable, Fox 32 News, DePaul’s Newsline, and the Steans Center’s newsletter.

Community scientists participate by growing any of the 38 host plants for the Rusty Patched Bumble Bee and uploading photos of plants and bees in iNaturalist, a species identification website and app. Using the iNaturalist data, I made maps to examine the abundance and distribution of host plants in each blooming period in Evanston. Additionally, I assessed how representative the iNaturalist data of host plants by ground truthing plants and conducting plant surveys. During summer 2022, I ground truthed the observations of plants made on iNaturalist, between the launch of their app in 2008 and before this project began in 2021, to determine the proportional presence of the plants. I also divided Evanston into four quadrants and conducted plant surveys, in which I tracked my walk while taking photos of host plants, meandering along the diagonal of each quadrant. I compared the number and distribution of host plants in each quadrant that I surveyed with the iNaturalist data to assess to what extent the iNaturalist data provides an accurate representation of host plants in Evanston.

Community engagement and education were important aspects of this initiative, and have taken place digitally and in person. My friend, Ava DeCapri designed branding to embody the project’s mission. I created a website, social media accounts and a newsletter to share project updates and facts, and answer questions about host plants and bees. At the completion of the the Fellowship period, 150 community scientists had signed up to participate in the project, 197 people subscribed to the newsletter, and the project has 307 followers on Instagram and 67 page likes on F​acebook.

During the summer of 2022, a high school student interned with me and helped run the social media accounts. I also hosted several events on Zoom, including a community scientist training in which I included in-depth information about the Rusty Patched Bumble Bee and demonstrated how to use iNaturalist on both the website and the app, which twenty-four people attended. In July of that year, NHE and I hosted a presentation on Zoom about bumble bees by Terry Miesle who is partnering with us to help confirm whether or not any of the bee observations people shared in iNaturalist are of the Rusty Patched Bumble Bee. I edited and uploaded virtual tutorials and recordings of the community scientist training and Terry’s bumble bee presentation on a YouTube channel for people who were not able to attend live. Because some of the participants found iNaturalist to be not intuitive, I planned to offer an additional training in the fall so that they could upload the photos that they took of plants throughout the growing season.

During te fellowship, I organized two bioblitzes for people to learn how to use iNaturalist and take photos of host plants at habitat gardens in Evanston. The first bioblitz took place at the Morton Civic Center Habitat Garden where twelve people attended and uploaded photos of 35 plants and bees. We hosted the second bioblitz at the Ladd Arboretum with eleven attendees. The bioblitzes enabled participants to connect with other people who are involved in the project, and receive encouragement to add the plants to their own gardens.

Moreover, I organized two plant giveaways to connect both novice and experienced gardeners with host plants to expand habitat in Evanston. Both of the plant giveaways were intentionally located in the Fifth Ward, a historically African American community in Evanston, to increase access to pollinator plants. The plants and materials were generously funded by DePaul’s Graduate Research Fund, the Harrison I. Steans Center, and the Illinois Native Plant Society’s Research Grant. I collaborated with Gabby Bozeman, a classmate in the Environmental Sciences Master’s program at DePaul, on the first plant giveaway, which spanned three hours during June 2021, in partnership with C&W Market and Ice Cream Parlor in the Fifth Ward of Evanston. We gave away 250 host plants to about 70 people, with a mixture of people who were already participating in the project and new to the project.

The plants were grown by Allison Sloan, co-founder of NHE and founder of Shady Grove Wildflower Nursery based in Evanston. For the second plant giveaway, the Foster Street Urban Agriculture program, a black-owned youth development program that is a part of the Evanston Food Exchange, enthusiastically agreed to partner and host the event in their space at Family Focus on the weekend of September 18, 2021. They will provide the space, and promote the event to their networks, and I will bring the plants and materials, pitch the event to the media, and recruit volunteers to help run it.

Lastly, I created an anonymous survey about people’s knowledge and opinions regarding lawns, gardens and bees. It received IRB approval and I shared the survey on our social media accounts and newsletters.  I disseminated the survey to community scientists, plant giveaway recipients, and non-participants, and compared the trends in their responses.

In reflecting on the accomplishments and challenges of this project, I have been extremely impressed by the enthusiastic feedback and participation from people in Evanston, and many community members’ eagerness to help conserve the Rusty Patched Bumble Bee. I hope to continue this research and incorporate more events to connect community scientists with each other and to offer more iNaturalist trainings. My hope was that this community science project made a difference in both influencing people’s awareness of and contributions to urban pollinator conservation. The project can can continue to conserve the Rusty Patched Bumble Bee and other pollinators that may benefit from its habitat. The adoption and implementation of community science projects like this in neighborhoods may contribute to greater habitat connectivity for pollinator conservation.​​