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BC Native Bee Course 2023: Identifying Bees in the Lab

Updated: Jun 28

by Christine Thuring

As the days got longer, a diversity of beeple from across the province descended on the Okanagan to learn to identify native bees. Learning about native bees in Canada's bee biodiversity hotspot is a deep dive for everyone, making the course a joyful, collaborative and fun experience for all.

Affectionately known as Bee School, this is the first time the Native Bee Society of BC has run the BC Bee Course. Now in its 6th offering, the course was created and delivered by founding director, Lincoln Best. Linc is a bee taxonomist who leads the Oregon Bee Atlas and Master Melittologist programs in the faculty of Horticulture at Oregon State University and its Extension service. This year's course was supported by fellow NBSBC directors, Bonnie Zand as co-instructor, and Marika Ai-Li as course coordinator.

This year, the course was divided into two groups, which overlapped for the two field days. This blog reflects on the lab component, hosted at Okanagan College in Penticton.

Identifying bees in the lab

BC Bee Course 2023: Identifying Bees in the Lab

With a fauna of 600 species, only 10-15% of BCs native bees can be reliably identified from photographs. This is because positive identification requires an array of essential features, many of which are difficult to find, even under a microscope! Finding such characteristics without a microscope and photographing them is basically impossible. Real specimens are required, and hence the Bee Course involves two days in the lab.

[That being said, out of 600 species, 60-90 can be identified by photographs! Thanks to the curation of founding director, Lori Weidenhammer, our BeeTracker project on iNaturalist is assembling useful data about the state of native bee populations in BC. Check out the guidelines for taking good photographs on page 15 of iNaturalist's Toolkit (and consider getting involved in the Pollinator Week Bioblitz: June 19-25, 2023).]

As a lifelong collector and bee expert, Linc brings his excellent collection to the course. He pinned his first specimen in1987, and started collecting the BC bee fauna in 2002. His teaching collection currently includes 50 species of bumblebees and 300 species of other bees representing at least 55 genera. His private museum holdings include material from expeditions around the world.

Linc's teaching collection: 6 drawers with about 2000 specimens representing about 300 species

"Don't suffer in silence; suffer audibly so we can help you!" Technical keys and features are challenging, and this was stated frequently. Another gentle mantra: "Biodiversity has an exception to every rule". Learning together is fun and, when it comes to bees, the only way.

Lab Day 1: Keying out BC's bumblebees

The first day in the lab was dedicated to bumblebees, BC's only social native bee. Bombus in BC includes 8 sub-genera and 32 species. We used Williams et al. (2007)'s key to the Bombus subgenera of BC for females.

Who would have thought they'd be looking at bumblebee teeth, knees and noses on this course? Nobody!

The microscope work began with colouring in blank templates created by Paul Williams. Colouring teaches us to look more closely.

Then we got into identifying to subgenera using techincal keys. The images below give a visual flavour of the key we used, where couplets 2, 3 and 4 distinguish between characters of mandibles (teeth), knee angle of the middle leg (mid basitarsus) and noses (clypeus).

Is the knee (distal posterior corner of the mid basitarsus) sharp or rounded?

Magnified image of the knee angle of a bee's middle leg.

Is the nose (clypeus) punctate or predominantly smooth? Does the mandible have a distal notch (incisura) that is nearly as deep and wide or less than half as deep as wide?

Lab Day 2: Keying out BC's solitary bees

Day two focused on the solitary bees, which include 6 families and 44 genera. For this, we used the CANPOLIN key to bee genera in Canada. This key places more emphasis on the venation of the wings, and other fine details.

Linc is an excellent lead instructor, and Bonnie a fantastic co-instructor. The lab was buzzing with all sorts of energy, from astonishment and discovery to pleasant conversation and bonding. Even as someone on their first deep dive of this sort, it was hugely enjoyable and fun. And it only got better, with the field days that followed! That post will follow.

Keys to Genera


Christine is a founding member and current co-chair of the Native Bee Society. She is a plant ecologist and Green Roof Professional, and a participant of the 2023 MeadowMakers Program. This was her first time on BC Bee School.

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