Watch the news – even buy a box of cereal – and you’ll be told that bees are in danger and we need to save them. Unfortunately, no distinction is made between managed non-native honey bees and native bees. “Honey bees are livestock and are managed by beekeepers,” explains Megan Evans, president of the Alberta Native Bee Council. “They’re important, but they’re not a conservation issue.” That isn’t the case with native bees. Of the 321 native bee species in Alberta, over 60 are either vulnerable or imperilled.
Alberta’s Native Bees
Alberta is home to five main types of native bees.
Andrenidae – Also known as mining bees, the andrenid is a large family of solitary, ground-nesting bees. They are some of the first bees to emerge in spring and can often be seen on willows. They remain underground through summer, fall, and winter.
Apidae – Members of the apidae family, which includes bumble bees, tend to be large, hairy, and fast-flying. Bumble bees are the largest bees you’ll see in Alberta. They’re also tough and more tolerant of the cold than many insects so you’ll spot them from early spring to late fall. They are social, living in colonies with a queen.
Colletidae – These bees are also known as plasterer or cellophane bees because they line their nests with a transparent, cellophane-like material to protect their young from moisture and fungi. Many are solitary ground nesters (although they may form clusters of nests), while others nest in hollow cavities such as dead plant stems. They carry pollen in their internal crops.
Halictidae – Sweat bees often hover near people as they’re attracted to sweat. Many are metallic green, while others are blue or copper. Some nest on their own, while others share a common entrance to an underground site but each female digs her own cell, laying an egg on a ball of nectar and pollen.
Megachilidae – Mason bees build their nest cells from soil, while leaf cutter bees fashion theirs from leaves. A few, called carder bees, use plant or animal hairs and fibres to make their nest. Most of them carry pollen on their hairy underbelly.
Alberta Native Bee Council
The Alberta Native Bee Council was established in 2017 by native bee researchers, conservationists, and enthusiasts to address the need for accurate information about the province’s native bees. Their goal is to collect data and monitor native bee populations; serve as the go-to for good, accurate information; and share their enthusiasm through presentations and citizen science projects.
“There are over 800 species of native bees in Canada and over 300 in Alberta, and yet we know so little about them,” Megan says. “We need good range maps, habitat suitability, data on which species are declining and why. Some of our bees are doing fine, but others aren’t. We need to know why so we can address the problems.” Megan believes that seeing the gaps has helped to motivate Council members by providing them with clear objectives.
Conducting a province-wide survey is a huge task for a small, volunteer-driven organization, so the focus has been on pulling in resources and being innovative. For their 2018 survey, they collaborated with Alberta Agriculture and Forestry, sending a kit with collection traps to the over 100 fire lookouts in remote locations across the province. People live at the lookouts summer-long so council members hoped they would find time to set out the traps; and many did. The kits were also sent to parks and some other volunteer organizations.
A citizen science project is also being used to collect data. The Council’s website provides instructions on how to build a bumble bee nesting box. Participants are then asked to monitor their boxes and report back on the presence or lack of bee activity.
Agriculture and Bees
Farmers used to rely on native bees to pollinate their crops but larger fields and monocultures have made them more reliant on managed pollinators. “We can reduce our reliance on external inputs,” Megan says, “by providing space for native pollinators and spiders and birds that will eat pests.” Windbreaks and ditches can serve as eco buffers, providing a complex ecosystem that provides food and shelter for wildlife, traps snow, reduces runoff, and prevents erosion.
In addition to honey bees, greenhouses are now using Common Eastern Bumble Bees. These bees, which are not native to Western Canada, are now being found in the wild in Alberta. “Honey bees are well regulated,” Megan explains, “but there are few regulations or enforcement for other managed species.”
What Can We Do?
While many of us wait eagerly for the first native flowers to appear in the spring and track the changes as different flowers appear over the course of the spring, summer, and fall, Megan follows the progression of the bees. “Bumble bees are active all season long, but others are only active for a few weeks as they are specialists and will only feed on a specific flower,” Megan says.
Urban areas tend to provide greater diversity and have more robust bee populations when compared to rural areas. All of us can do our part to support native bee populations by planting a wide diversity of native plants. There are plenty of resources available to help you select native plants that will thrive in your area and provide valuable food for bees and other pollinators. Some of these are listed below.
Alberta’s Native Bees [ANBC]
Native Plant Resources [ANBC]
Pollinator Paradise YXE (native plant information and resources) [Wild About Saskatoon]
How to Attract Pollinators [David Suzuki Foundation]
Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/apmckinlay/48824174381 (revised)
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