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Falling in Love with Kootenay Camas

On May 7, 2022 the Native Bee Society and the Kootenay Native Plant Society collaborated to hold an even celebrating bees in common camas (Camassia quamash) at Millennium Park in Castlegar, BC. It was a wonderful experience, where bee scientists and botanists shared their deep appreciation for this beautiful flower with two dozen members of the public. The Kootenay Native Plant Society has documented more than 50 species of bees that visit camas, and more than 100 species of B.C. native bees that visit diverse camas meadows. Common camas is also an cultural keystone edible plant of the local First Nations. It takes years to grow to maturity and thrives best in its native habitat, which is continually under threat by development by those who fail to appreciate its intrinsic value.

Ethnoecologist, field botanist and environmental educator Brenda Beckwith, who did her PHD thesis on common camas, gave us a beautiful land acknowledgement as we looked out over the Columbia River towards Brilliant Flats. The Sinixt name for this area is kp'itl'els, at the convergence of the Columbia and Kootenay Rivers contains the largest population of interior camas, suggesting it was and is an important First Nations site, connecting people to this site for thousands of years on traditional unceded territory of the Ktunaxa , Okanagan, and Sinixt Peoples. For more about how the Kootenay native Plant Society has studied and advocated for the local camas, check out their web site:

We split into two groups, one with bee taxonomist Lincoln Best, and the other with University of Calgary master's degree student and pollinator technician Rowen Rampton. Rowen gave us a demonstration of how he skillfully catches bees in his net without harming the bee or the flowers. You can see Rowan's wonderful photos of insects on camas in his iNaturalist observations.

One of the bumble bee species that is commonly seen on common camas in the interior is Bombus nearcticus. These bees were formerly classified under the B. bifarius complex, and now are part of the Vancouver bumble bee complex. It's interesting that the coastal species in this complex are often found on the two species of coastal camas: C. quamash and C. leichtinii. The colour morphs of the coastal bees are different from the interior ones, which are usually cream and black with a touch of orange on the abdomen. The coastal Vancouver Bumble bees tend to have bright orange stripes on their abdomen. The light blue interior camas flowers are also a different set of colours from the coastal flowers, which tend to be shades of dark blue and purple.

The bee I saw most often on the common camas here was the ashy digger bee (Habropoda cineraria), which has an orange tinge on the pollen-collecting hairs on the females' back legs. Lincoln Best has nicknamed them the "Ashy Larrys". They are fast-flying long-tongued bees that fit the blossom perfectly. In this photo you can see how the stamens wrap around the bee so the anthers contact their branched hairs.

Lincoln Best has spent many years in this areas catching bees and fish in his nets. He can ID the Andrena mining bees on the wing. This one with a stripe across its thorax is Andrena transnigra.

Just a slight tinge of blue on the thorax of this Andrena mining bee I found warming up on a camas flower.

Lincoln Best travels with his bee net and his fishing net, connecting people to bees from California to the remotes meadows and secret fishing holes of BC.

Brenda Beckwith helps folks look for holes that suggest the nests of mining bees near the camas. One of the challenging things about camas is that it lives underground and invisible to humans for several months of the year. The same could be said of over 70 per cent of the bees that pollinate many of our native plants in British Columbia.

The Kootenay Native Plant Society has worked for years trying to educate locals about the rich cultural and natural history of camas. Signs like these help raise the profile of camas and remind people of its existence even when it is not blooming. Part of the fields have been fenced off to protect them. "The problem with this, " Brenda Beckwith says, "is that since once part is protected they think they can just develop over the fields that aren't protected". She advocates for the protection of all remaining camas.

Where this statue stands, there used to be camas. The same goes for many of the other facilities in Millennium park, including some "natural swimming pools" which are contaminated with e. coli for much of the summer. Beckwith and other teachers like Meghan Read are educating local school children about why we need to protect the remaining camas.

Teaching the younger generations about the importance of camas are integral to its protection. But we can't wait for them to take action. It needs to happen right now, before the ambitious projects of the politicians literally obliterate the remaining plants.

After Rowan and Lincoln educate us about camas bees, Brenda Beckwith gave us a talk about her passion for this plant, which she has studied for 25 years. We started by sitting down around the edges of a field called "The Fortis Triangle" because this was a place where energy-producing infrastructure prevented development of the field. Now that that infrastructure is gone, developers are eyeing the site, thinking they can just "move the camas". Beckwith has met women who dig and prepare camas that have a family history going back generations. The bulbs are pit roasted for three days to break down and caramelize the inulin in the plant and make it digestible to humans. She talks about sitting with the camas to listen to the wisdom it communicates to her.

With a keen botanist's eye, Valerie Huff discovers a rare oddity with an unusual number of petals and stamens--the result of two blossoms fusing together.

Valerie also noticed that while the weather was taking a turn to cool clouds and wind, a bunch of male Andrena and Colletes males were hunkering down on the blossoms waiting for the sun to come back.

"Ahoy matey!" A male Colletes waits out a brief squall in a sea of camas.

What a privilege it was to be part of this magical event! I feel so much gratitude to all the folks who helped make this happen. Special thanks to the Kootenay native Plant Society and support from the Fish & Wildlife Compensation Program. What I loved about this event is that it was a phenologically-sensitive place-based celebration of camas and bees that brought together passionate folks who really appreciate the profound significance of this synergy of bees, culture and botany. We’d love to plan more events like this in the future to expand on this celebration and open the hearts and minds of people all over BC about the important relationship of native bees to native plants in the regions where they are native. Please let us know if you have an idea for a similar celebration in your neighbourhood.

P. S: It really excites me to see so many beautiful observations of bees on camas coming into the iNat Bee Tracker project. I am trying to add Camassia as a foraging observation, and would love your help with that, especially if you know which species of camas you are looking at.

Lori Weidenhammer

co-chair Native Bee Society of British Columbia

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