Bees have a big job to do -- and they could use a hand


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Biodiversity

Published

2018-07-06

Did you know that the majority of the roughly 4,000 North American bee species live alone, can’t sting you, and nest in the ground?

It is more than likely that you have crossed paths with a bee already this summer. They are everywhere, but many of them don’t look anything like the classic black-and-yellow bee on your bottle of honey or box of Cheerios. Some are much larger and more colourful. Many are similar in size to flies and lack distinctive colouration. Others are the size of a pin-head and can be tricky to spot on even the brightest of flowers.

This broad range of species is united by their common ancestry: They are the vegetarian descendants of wasps, preferring to eat pollen instead of other bugs. Of course, this preference for pollen is what makes them critically important pollinators. Bees perform this role worldwide in many wildly different places -- today you can find wild bees on every continent and across an impressive range of habitats, including urban landscapes.

Having spent two years studying bees and bee behaviour, I have come to believe that all bees are remarkable in their own way and are quite adorable! Here are just a few that you might come across when you’re out and about this summer.

Some of the easiest bees to spot are carpenter bees. They can be huge, some are as big as a grape, and are often mistaken for bumble bees. If you see a plump bee burrowing into an old tree, it is likely one of these critters. Although most prefer decaying wood or bamboo, some species will nest in wooden dwellings. If this is the case in your home, the damage will likely be superficial since their tunnels are near the surface.

Bumble bees are some of the fuzziest bees around and you can often find them in North American cities. Sometimes they find you, but as long as you’re not threatening their nest, it is unlikely that they will sting. I have often had bumble bees circle me a couple times, but not one has landed to sting me. It is a common behavior and our current best guess is that they are taking note of a new landmark (you). Bumble bees travel long distances to find flowers. They are just doing their level best to keep track of the landscape, not unlike our researchers.

In Northern Ontario, where WCS researchers are examining the population health of lake sturgeon and many of our fellows are tracking shorebird migration, bumble bee queens have likely already established their nests. These bees are tundra adapted and do quite well in the north where the landscape is full of bogs and berries. Bumble bee ranges extend as far as Yukon, where our staff are tracking migratory birds and whales. Even in and around the bat caves of British Columbia that WCS Canada is trying to protect from white-nose syndrome, cuckoo bumble bees are laying their eggs in the established nests of other species.

In Southern Ontario, where the WCS Canada head office is located, the bee community is vibrant, and interest in their health is growing. There are province-wide pollinator health projects and some cities are starting to get on board. The City of Toronto recently dubbed the metallic green sweat bee its “official city bee.” This particular bee was chosen because of its unique underground communal nest structure, which could be seen as perhaps city-like. Metallic green sweat bees share a nest entrance, which individuals take turns guarding, but each female has its own burrow (“similar to a condominium” says the city). When burrows are left unoccupied, unrelated bees of the same species are welcome to take up residence, a behavior that is quite uncommon in the bee world.

For some species finding a nesting site in the city can be tough. All across Canada people are building AirBee&Bees to provide homes to local bees. Keep an eye out for covered PVC pipe filled with an array of tiny cardboard straws. These structures are made for housing mason bees -- solitary bees that lay individual eggs inside a cluster of soil and pollen that they bring back to the nest. Some of these homes are for conservation, some are for fun, and many are for research. If you happen across one of these structures, enjoy watching the inhabitants come and go, but please leave them bee!

There are so many more bees species to learn about, and tons of great resources available on how to help native bees out. Unfortunately, a lot of the buzz around pollinators has focused on “saving” honey bees. Frankly, honey bees don’t need to be saved. They are to bees as chickens are to birds -- a domestic species we manage closely for our own purposes. Honey bees need only the attention of their keepers; native bees, on the other hand, are in dire need of our attention.

There are about 800 species of native bees in Canada. Many of these species are declining, some quite rapidly, and unfortunately several species are facing extinction. These species are being threatened by the usual suspects: habitat degradation, pesticide use, and climate change. To combat or compensate for these changes, we must become much better at understanding how our activities impact native bees.

So keep an eye on the flowers and your ears tuned for a gentle buzzzz, and if you are lucky enough to see some pollinators this summer, don’t be afraid. In fact, please try and get in close and take a picture. We’d love to see what bees are calling your neighbourhood home. Post your pictures to Twitter or Facebook with the hashtag #BeeSeenWCS.

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