The buzz about bees

There has been a lot of talk about threats to the bee population around the world over the past few years. Climate change, habitat loss and pesticides seem to be the most serious sources of the declining numbers of bees, but it is a bit more complicated than that.

Chemical pesticides cause impaired communication, disorientation, decreased longevity, suppressed immune systems and disruption of brood cycles, all of which lead to reduced numbers of bees.

Despite the fact that the connection between the use of pesticides — particularly those that are nicotine-based — and harm to bees, Canada has been slow to move to ban or even limit the use of neonicotinoids. The ban announced earlier this year by Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency has a three- to five-year phase in time, which is much slower than that in many European countries.

But a bee is not just a bee

There are bees, and then there are bees. In particular, there are bumble bees and there are honey bees. Bumble bees are wild and honey bees are, largely, domesticated. They look quite different from one another: bumble bees are larger and have more body hairs than the slender honey bee, which has an abdomen that is more pointed.

Wasps and hornets are the main stinging culprits, although both bumble bees and honey bees will sting, especially if they feel their hives are threatened.

While both the bumble bee and honey bee provide free pollination services to crops such as apples, blueberries, tomatoes and legumes as well as wildflowers, shrubs and trees, the bumble bee is twice as effective.

Who’s at risk?

Both kinds of bees pay the price of human-caused climate change, loss of habitat and pesticide use. However, the bumble bee is especially threatened: Canadian researchers warn that this bee, which makes up 42 of the 850 species of bees in Canada is facing imminent extinction. Its “area of occurrence” has decreased by 70 percent and its abundance by 89 percent between 2007 and 2016 over the previous 100 years. For example, in the 1970s, the rusty patched bumble bee was one of the most common bees in eastern North America but it has been seen only twice since 2004.

Bumble Bee Watch is a collaborative effort to track and conserve North America’s bumble bees. People are encouraged to take photos of any bumble bees they see and send them to the organization, which will identify them and post the photos to its website. An interactive map allows people to find out more about bumble bees in specific parts of the continent. The map lists 46 species, with such enticing names as the confusing bumble bee, the cryptic bumble bee and the indiscriminate cuckoo bumble bee.

Honey bees, on the other hand, are not threatened to nearly the same extent. And, in fact, the fascination with honey bees coupled with a huge surge in urban honey beekeeping across North America, may be a threat to the population of wild bumble bees as they compete for the same sources of food.

What should we be doing?

We can’t save bumble bees just by increasing the number of other kind of bees. As Sheila Colla, York University ecologist says:

“We would never do that with other animals. It would be like throwing some Asian carp into Lake Ontario to save the fish.”

This isn’t to say there is no role for urban honey beekeeping, just that we need to do more than have neighbourhood bee hives.

Here are some other suggestions for action.

Canada is heading into a federal election issue. Ask your local candidates whether they support speeding up Canada’s ban on neonic pesticides. If other countries could do this quickly, there is no reason we can’t.  

Make addressing climate change an election issue, to preserve the future of all of us, including bumble bees.

If you have space, plant a garden, no matter how small, because it will increase habitat for bumble bees. You can take steps to make that garden attractive to bees by growing native plants in a variety of bright colours. Ensure you have plants that will bloom for as much of the year as possible. Include milkweed in your plantings — bees like them, and so do monarch butterflies.

Rather than covering your whole garden with mulch, leave some bare ground for those bees that dig their nests underground. Plant flowers around your vegetable garden to draw bumble bees closer and encourage them to pollinate your garden.

And, the next time a bumble bee is buzzing around your head, think of all the pollinating it is doing for you and don’t swat it.

As Sheila Colla says:

“Humans are notoriously bad at managing the environment. One of the best things we can do is step back, learn about the species we do have and not try to manage.”

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