top of page

The Mysterious Bees of Malcolm Island

By Darren Kirby with contributions by Lori Weidenhammer

Photo: Darren Kirby


Malcolm Island, located in Queen Charlotte Strait just off the northern part of Vancouver Island, rises modestly from the sea, vaguely reminiscent of a human figure reposed on its side in shallow water. It is not a great distance, and the mass of shapes and forms comprising the village of Sointula is visible from the shore at Port McNeil from where we’ve boarded BC Ferries’ Island Aurora for the 25-minute crossing. It is a lovely early July evening, and an honour guard of Pigeon Guillemots, Rhinoceros Auklets, and gulls loafing on a shallow rock bar welcome us during the sailing.


Sointula was born from a dream. At the turn of the 20th century a group of Finnish immigrants, dismayed by poor working conditions in the coal mines at Nanaimo, paddled north with intentions to create a socialist utopia. They named it Sointula, which means ‘place of harmony’. They recruited a charismatic Finnish expat to lead them. They built a community hall for meetings and events, a gymnasium which held daily calisthenics, and a cooperative store from which to buy and sell their collective wares and foodstuffs. Despite best intentions, within a decade the dream had died, laid asunder by lack of funds and a catastrophic fire which claimed lives and morale. Still, a few hardy souls remained, leaving a wash of Finnish flavour and culture which still survives into the present day.


We are here as guests of an island resident who armed with financing from a community-building grant, has reached out to the Native Bee Society of British Columbia about having someone come to the island and hold a talk on the importance of bees to environmental balance and food production. I have come to the island with Lori Weidenhammer, who answered the call to give the bee talk. Lori is an artist and educator who has made it her life’s work to promote the importance of native bees and the native plants they depend on. Lori is a founding member, and current board member of the NBSBC, and her passion for bees is infectious.



Photo: Darren Kirby



Photo: Darren Kirby



Our host has offered us a spot to camp on her property for our visit. After disembarking from the ferry, we take a quick drive down the main street of Sointula, the only population centre on the island, then make the 20-minute drive to Mitchell Bay on the far east end of the island. Despite our host’s warning of poor and non-existent signage, we find her place without much fuss. The property is managed, yet wild. A modest house is tucked into a copse of trees. She tells us later that the house is a former one-room school, circa 1915, converted by them for residential use. There are three outbuildings: a garage/workshop, a greenhouse, and a chicken coop (‘no roosters’, she assures us). There is a busy and productive garden off the driveway, protected by deer fencing. There is a glade of Western Red Cedars and Douglas Firs stretching as far as we can see behind the homestead. While eyeing this area to pitch our tent, our host warns us of possible falling branches (‘widowmakers’, she calls them. ‘The wind picks up off the bay in the afternoon’ she cautions).


The piece de resistance of the property is the view from the front of the house. Directly across the narrow road is a fine stone beach, covered with driftwood logs suitable to perch on whilst watching the brilliant sunsets over the bay. Over a short expanse of water, Cormorant Island is visible, home of the small village of Alert Bay – another island, with its own story to tell. Our host offers us anything we need, then leaves us to set up camp and settle in. After a long day of travelling, it is nice to have a bit of time to ourselves, and not have to engage in conversation, spirited or otherwise. We are both too tired for it just now. After we set up the tent, we collapse into it, exhausted. But before we can succumb to sleep, we hear the unmistakable sound of a whale ejecting water from its blowhole. Excitedly, we rush down to the beach to catch a peek. It is now that liminal space between light and dark, but we catch the outline of a lone humpback plying the bay. The whale would return to the bay each of the three nights we stayed there, sometimes swimming so close to the shore that the experience was almost magical. We sit on a log scanning the water until the last hint of light is gone from the sky, then make our way back to the tent to sleep.



Photo: Darren Kirby



Photo: Darren Kirby


We wake up to find a low mist settled over the island. I boil water on the camp stove for French press coffee and steeped tea whilst Lori cooks a simple breakfast of potatoes, scrambled eggs and sausage. Our first full day is for exploration. I clean up the dishes while Lori sits on the beach and gleans tips about spots to visit.


Other than a few streets in Sointula, all of the island’s roads are gravel-surfaced, and relatively poor in sections. We leave Mitchell Bay with a vague plan to drive to the far west end of the island and work our way back over the day. After a short while, rather than making the turn to Sointula, we continue down the appropriately named ‘Back Road’, marked by an ominous sign indicating it is an industrial road, and travel is at your own risk.

The road is positively claustrophobic at times, with dense vegetation growing right to the very edge of the road, and sometimes up and over. The experience is almost like driving through a tunnel of greenery. At times the road opens to a few beautiful glades of trees, and the sunlight filtering down to the ferns on the ground invites me to stop for a picture. Salal is everywhere, and the tall and wide stands of it are like nothing I’ve seen further south.



Photo: Darren Kirby



After a time we reach the intersection of Pulteney Point Road, which will take us to the nominal lighthouse which is our first point of call. It is not permitted to drive to the lighthouse property, so we stop short in a parking area from where the rest of the trek must be made along the beach. Another vaguely threatening sign warns us to pay attention to the tide, but finding it well out, we set out on foot. The beach consists of medium-sized stones, which make for difficult walking, but we are heartened that the sun is starting to make an appearance to burn off the mist and low clouds. The way is marked by the chattering and scrambling of robins, and the short whistles of the Pacific-slope Flycatchers. Overhead, I can hear the flight calls of a modest flock of Red Crossbills. Lori finds a leather star on the rocky beach, but unfortunately, it is deceased. We take pictures for posterity and move along.



Photo: Darren Kirby


On the beach there are skeletons of whole trees that are bleached by the sun, that look like the skeletal remains of whales. There is a diversity of seaweed species washed up on the shore, some of the plants are stuck to large stones at the base, which must anchor the fronds in the water.



Photo: Lori Weidenhammer



Photo: Lori Weidenhammer


Arriving at the lighthouse, Lori stops to talk to the friendly lighthouse keeper, who is set to do a spot of grounds maintenance. While they chat I continue down the beach to the point, to take in the vista. From here I can see directly across to Vancouver Island and I can pick out Cluxewe Resort, as well as a large conveyor jutting out into the ocean for loading ships. Later someone tells us it is for loading gravel. I attempt a bit of online sleuthing but never do find out where the gravel gets shipped to and what it is used for.



Photo: Darren Kirby



Photo: Darren Kirby


We wander back along the beach towards the truck, stopping only to sit on a log and have a snack of chocolate. On the drive back Lori notes how yellow all the vegetation is in one area. The cedars, spruces, and even the salal bushes growing along in the ditch have a pronounced yellow tinge. We wonder if it is a trick of the light, but neither of us has a satisfying answer. Another Malcolm Island mystery. By the time we reach Bere Point Regional Park, it is time for lunch, so we unpack the stove and cooking supplies from the truck and set up at a day-use picnic table. I start making some Kraft Dinner, a camp stove favourite of ours, whilst Lori makes a salad.



Photo: Darren Kirby


We enjoy our meal watching the waves break gently on the rocky beach, which as all beaches around here tend to be, is littered with driftwood logs, big and small. We look across the water, and enjoy the view of the magnificent Coast Mountains on the mainland, well in the distance. After lunch, Lori wanders around surveying the wildflowers for bees but comes back disappointed. We decide to wander through the campground and down the Beautiful Bay Trail, which meanders along following the top of the bank that follows the shore. The campground is nice enough, but many of the sites have been ‘decorated’ with sculptures and walls fashioned from driftwood, which detracts from the natural aesthetic I prefer in my camping spots.



Photo: Darren Kirby


We reach the trailhead at the end of the campground and make our way towards the two platforms that were erected to allow for safe and distanced viewing of whales on the ‘rub rocks’ in the ocean below. Much like the back road, the trail is narrow and overgrown with salal and blackberry brambles. The path itself is webbed with exposed roots and is uneven, so we have to mind our footing carefully to avoid tripping. Again, the salal has grown to absurd heights, well over our heads in places, and it has a vague claustrophobic feel to it. Lori says it seems confounding that there is so much blooming salal here, but we’re not seeing bumble bees foraging in the plants. It’s a bit of a mystery. Occasionally a bumble bee zooms through the forest over our heads, but they don’t land in the flowers. After a short time, we arrive at the first platform, which we find rather creaky and shabby in a years-old coat of sky-blue paint, most of which has long since peeled off. We walk onto the platform and peer below, but there are no whales to be seen, rubbing or otherwise.



Photo: Darren Kirby


I notice there are also very few birds, other than the occasional creaking towhee, and again Lori comments on the dearth of bees. She suggests we turn back, and although I am disappointed (we had only travelled 5 minutes or so down the trail), we wander back towards the campground. Along the way, we meet a woman leading a designer dog, and she asks if we saw any whales. Despite responding in the negative, she continues down towards the platform. As we arrive back at the campground I spot a bug on a flower that looks bee-like, and snap a picture. Lori wanders over and tells me dejectedly that it is just a syrphid fly, however, she begins to theorize that flies seem to be essential pollinators on this island.



Photo: Darren Kirby


Back at the truck, we decide to head back down the back road to Big Lake, which appears to be the largest publicly accessible lake on the island, and a popular local swimming hole. Again we reach the intersection of Pulteney Point Road, and after clearing it I am immediately forced to pull over to the side as a feller-buncher lumbers slowly towards us, a reminder that driving Back Road is at our risk. Moments later we arrive at the lake and survey the cold, dark, tannic waters. Although the morning fog has all burned off, and the sky is blue and clear, it is not particularly hot, so we skip the swim and decide to go for a short hike down the Mateoja Heritage Trail, which leads past a few small lakes and eventually down to Sointula itself. We have heard that not too far in there was a nice bog, so we set that for our destination. Lori is a keen fan of bogs and the rare and unique flora and fauna that they incubate.


As the trail doesn’t begin right at Big Lake, and there is nowhere to park closer along the narrow road, we set off on foot down the road and soon find the trailhead into the forest. The trail, sometimes dirt track, and sometimes boardwalk, winds through the rainforest and soon we come to a spot on the far side of Big Lake from where we parked, with a small deck and picnic table overgrown with greenery. Although the shrubs are flowering, the bees are still scarce and we find only some sluggish wasps buzzing about.


The trail now heads decidedly uphill, and we slowly make our way up and around rocky outcrops, huge nurse stumps, and plenty of deadfalls in the shade of the forest canopy. We soon come to Duck Lake, marked by a rustic hand-painted sign adorned with a pure black duck, not taxonomically correct, but cute nonetheless. There is another short spur trail down to a bench, so we wander down. The surface of Duck Lake is heavily covered in water lilies, but I detect some movement and spot a Hooded Merganser with her three chicks. Moving on, we arrive at the height of land, and can just make out the bog through the trees. Just before the descent, there is a huge felled spruce with a large throne carved into the root end, so we stop and take turns sitting for pictures.



Photo: Darren Kirby


Further on we find another rustic sign which informs us we are approaching “Melvin’s Bog”. Just before we emerge from the canopy Lori bends over and shows me a rare Gnome Plant (Hemitomas congestum) that she has spotted on the forest floor. We’re eager to post our observations of the rosy gnome on iNaturalist. It’s part of what we do as citizen scientists in order to contribute to research that conservationists can use to monitor and protect flora and fauna, both rare and common. It also helps us to become better naturalists as we learn from the experts who help identify the living things we see that are new to us. After getting an identification on iNat, we learn this little pink plant (oddly a member of the heather family) is mycoheterotrophic, which means it lacks chlorophyll and cannot photosynthesize. It feeds directly from surrounding fungi. The specific species of fungus this plant feeds from is the blood fungus (Hydnellum peckii) which is associated with conifers.



Photo: Lori Weidenhammer


Photo: Lori Weidenhammer



As we reach the bog the dirt track turns to a boardwalk, and we wander out into the full sun. Lori points out some carnivorous sundew (Drosera rotundifolia) growing from the mossy floor of the bog. We soon discover there is plenty of the delicate red plant whose leaves sprout an arsenal of barbs which secrete a sticky mucilage to trap unwitting insects which are then liquified to bolster the plant against the bog’s nutrient-poor soil. I find one with the remains of an insect and take some photos. As Lori explores the bog with her camera I wander down the boardwalk and do the same. There is not much happening, but I find some dragonflies and water striders and take some pictures.



Photo: Darren Kirby



Photo: Darren Kirby



Photo: Darren Kirby


Photo: Darren Kirby



One of the plants that dominates the surface of the bog is the great yellow pond lily (Nuphar polysepala). Flowers are hermaphroditic, containing pistils and stamens (with red anthers), and are pollinated by flies and beetles. Growing up between the planks of the boardwalk are salal (Galutheria shallon) and bog Labrador tea (Rhododendron groenlandicum). These are two plants that are particularly good sources of nectar and pollen for bumble bees.


Eventually, we backtrack up the trail and arrive back at the truck. I had noticed some ducks on the drive the night before, so we loop around the long way through Sointula to Kelava Road which tracks along the south shore of the island. Soon enough we happen across a raft of Harlequin Ducks, and I stop for some pictures. There is also a lone loon out some ways off shore, bobbing and diving from the surface in its unknown pursuit.


Lori scouts for bees in the nearby shrubs. She catches a glimpse of the tail end of a male bumble bee high up in the leaves of a twinberry bush. It has quite a golden yellow tinge and the black tergites at the end of the abdomen suggest it may be a male Bombus flavifrons. It grooms itself and flies on. Twinberry (Lonicera involucrata) is a wonderful plant for both bees and hummingbirds and judging by the amount of berries on the branches, these flowers have been well-pollinated. Lori also spots some thimbleberries (Rubus parviflorus) that are well-formed and full of seeds. This is also an indicator of a healthy population of pollinators in the area. The question is which pollinators are they? There are a few roses blooming as well, which appear to be the native Nootka rose, which is also beloved by bees, although, unlike twinberry, they lack nectar for the adult bees, but do provide pollen for developing larvae. What makes female bees such efficient pollinators is that they have evolved to collect and carry pollen to feed their young and some of it falls off their bodies and onto the female parts of the flowers, resulting in pollination.



Photo: Lori Weidenhammer


We head back to our camp and arrive exhausted and sweaty from our prior efforts for the day. Lori explores the gardens to the front and side of the renovated schoolhouse and finds the first bees we have seen on our trip. She notices a few Bombus flavifrons—a species with a particularly long face foraging in lacy phacelia (Phacelia tancetifolia). She snaps a photo of a female that has collected purple pollen from the flowers on the corbicula (pollen basket) on its back legs. She photographs a wool carder bee (Anthidium manicatum) on the same plant. It is one of the two introduced species of wool carder bees found in BC. (Cavity nesting bees sometimes get transported by accident in plants, plant pots, and even wooden structures they have nested inside.)



Photo: Lori Weidenhammer


Photo: Lori Weidenhammer


There are also many syrphid flies in the gardens, drinking nectar from the flowers and laying eggs on the plants. These hover flies do some pollination and their larvae eat aphids and help keep them from eating tender plant stems and leaves. There are also a few resident hummingbirds in the garden, which are particularly fond of the red runner bean flowers that climb up and around the garden fence. She even spots a hummer drinking nectar from some blooming nodding onion plants (Allium cernuum) which are also attracting the resident bees and syrphid flies.


We head back to our camp and arrive exhausted and sweaty from our prior efforts for the day. Our host graciously invites us in to bathe, which we gratefully accept, and after our showers, we relax and enjoy a bit of downtime before preparing our dinner.


***


The next day again breaks foggy, and we spend a lazy morning puttering about at our host’s. It is the day of Lori’s talk, and I want to head into town for a proper walkabout beforehand. Our host comes out and invites us to dine with her this evening. As it goes in a tight-knit community, she ran into a neighbour who gave her a side of fresh-caught salmon and a gluten-free cake. We make our departure and tell our host we will see her in a few hours at the talk.


As we arrive in town the mist has again burned off, and there is a nice mix of fluffy white clouds against the blue sky. I park near the Co-op, and we start our walk towards the Oceanfront Hotel, which appears to be a conglomeration of no less than three separate buildings. The hotel, and many other buildings in Sointula, are painted in bright and cheery bold colours much like they are on the East Coast. I expect it imparts a bit of brightness and whimsy in a place that has so many foggy and rainy days.



Photo: Darren Kirby


Photo: Darren Kirby



Photo: Lori Weidenhammer


Photo: Darren Kirby



Photo: Darren Kirby


The houses in Sointula are a mixed bag. All seem quite old, perhaps 1940s vintage and older. Some are neatly painted, and well-kept with gardens and wildflowers. Others are weathered and shabby, with peeling paint and junk strewn about. As we wander back Lori notices a small cabin which houses the local artist in residence. I find a bench to rest at while Lori goes to check out a gift shop just across from the ferry dock. She soon returns with a book on whales from local writer and photographer Alexandra Morton.


We pop into the Co-op to get a bottle of wine for our dinner. Whilst standing in line the lady in front of us loudly chats with the cashier about whale sightings, then, clearly aware of our presence, sardonically declares that the tourists don’t need to know where they are. I internally bristle from her insular comments, which seem frequent if not common from some people who have found their piece of paradise and don’t want others enjoying it, but Lori takes the comment in stride when we talk about it outside.



Photo: Darren Kirby


We return to the truck and make our way to the community garden just down the road at Dickenson Point. We are still a bit early, so we mill about a bit before wandering over to get a feel for the place. The garden is large and open, with a fence and two gates to separate it from the lot it is situated in. There is a small shed used as an office, and a modest greenhouse. A few gardeners are working their plots, and Lori introduces herself and me as we tour around. The attendees are starting to file in now, and the garden members procure some chairs and arrange them in a semi-circle facing the shed/office from where Lori will begin her talk. Two o'clock rolls around and there is now a good crowd of about 20 people.



Photo: Darren Kirby


Lori begins her talk with an outline of the various bee families, and the importance of native bees, then segues into a survey of important bee plants, pausing to occasionally quiz the locals on whether the particular plants she mentions grow on the island natively. She hands out NBSBC materials on common bees and talks about introduced honey bees versus native mason bees for agricultural pollination. It may seem like a practical decision to bring imported honey bees to the island for their pollination services, but in a fragile ecosystem on a small island, this would be disastrous to the pollinators that exist on the island right now.


The talk is briefly interrupted as a brown mink suddenly scurries from under the shed and runs across the garden, gathering the audience's attention. Despite the upstaging, Lori continues undaunted, discussing the need for some baffles or screening in the fencing on the garden’s perimeter to mitigate the wind which makes it more challenging for bees to forage inside the community garden. She suggests that a hedge or shrubbery would work best, as ground-nesting bees could burrow underneath.


Lori begins to talk about the importance of iNaturalist, and similar ‘citizen science’ or ‘community science’ projects. She states it would really be helpful for folks observing plants and insects (particularly pollinators) to record what they are seeing and post it on iNaturalist. The more information that gardeners and naturalists have on the local pollinators, the better they will be at targeting protective measures.


Photo: Lori Weidenhammer


After the introductory talk, Lori invites the attendees for a walk and talk through the garden, for some commentary on the plants that are growing in the numerous planters. One of the best bee plants in the garden that is blooming turns out to be cilantro, where Lori finds a tiny Dialictus sweat bee and a ground-nesting Colletes bee. She captures the cellophane bee in a jar and passes it around to be inspected before releasing it. For the most part, she is happy with the gardener’s choices, but upon seeing a bunch of oxeye daisies, she somewhat cheekily talks about how the introduced and invasive ornamental flowers are bad for the local environment and poor forage for bees. “I know they’re pretty”, she says, “but they’re awful!”

Lori also notices a bumble bee foraging for nectar in some Dutch clover that is growing in the community garden. It’s another long-faced yellow-fronted bumble bee—Bombus flavifrons. This is the same species she saw in our host’s garden. Being a long-tongued bee, it would benefit from tubular flowers—which would also be of interest to the island’s hummingbirds. Examples of plants that long-tongued bees and hummingbirds feed on include wild bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), self-heal (Prunella vulgaris), penstemons, lupins, and sages. However, bumble bees are generalists, so there are many shallow flowers that B. vagans also adore such as roses, raspberries, and flowers in the aster family. They are likely found in salal and pussywillows here on Malcolm Island.



Photo: Darren Kirby


As the talk concludes, a small group of attendees gather and Lori answers their questions. After addressing their questions and comments people start filing back to their cars and bikes, or just walk the short distance back to their homes in town. Adjacent to the community garden is a striking metal sculpture that has the appearance of an elegant curved feather. The title is “Honour and Protect the Fragility of Nature” and the artist is Amielle Doyon-Gilbert. Looking through the sculpture out over the water towards Alert Bay, it is a suitable reminder that the beauty of this land is here today because of the stewardship of the First Nations on the Kwakwakw’akw Territory of the ‘Namgis, Mamalilikala, and Kwakuitl Nations that lived here before it was colonized by settlers.



Photo: Lori Weidenhammer


We head back for dinner and have a lovely meal of baked salmon. We chat with our host about her home and family, and life on the relatively remote island. She tells us that the author of the book Lori bought earlier was in attendance at the talk. Dinner is delicious, and the warmth of the hospitality is welcome on this last night of our stay. Before we retire to the tent Lori and I sit on a driftwood log on the beach and enjoy the sunset over the bay. It is calming and comforting, and a fitting and beautiful way to wrap up our time here. We spot a very funky-looking black and red bee-like robber fly. I post it on iNat and Rob Cannings later identifies it as Laphria asackeni. There have only been 33 recorded sightings of this species in the world, so it’s quite a thrill to get a record of it. Robber flies are carnivorous insects that feast on bees and other insects. They are skilled hunters who capture their prey in flight. They are a sign of insect diversity, so there must be some smaller insects here that are sustaining them.



Photo: Lori Weidenhammer


Photo: Darren Kirby

Our host passes us with a dish and tosses something into the sea. “Returning the bones of the salmon to the ocean” she explains. It is a simple, powerful ritual of gratitude. We witness her gesture which resonates with our own deep sense of thankfulness for our visit to this mystical and beautiful place. As twilight descends over the bay, and onto our visit to Malcolm Island, we silently ponder the mystery of the dearth of bees and reflect on the time we’ve spent here. We make our way back to the tent one last time, and we are grateful for, and fulfilled by the short time we were able to spend here.



Photo: Lori Weidenhammer


323 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All

The Buzz

Comentarios


bottom of page