Updated: Mar 1
Newsletter of the Native Bee Society of British Columbia March 2022
Volume 3 | Issue 1
Editors-in-chief: C. Thuring & M. Marriott
Contributors: Marika van Ai-Li, Martina Clausen, Paula Cruise, Lincoln Best, Jen Hayes, Lori Weidenhammer, Sarah Johnson, Sarah Peebles, Bonnie Zand
Fly Straight to Article:
Annual General Meeting and Board Elections
by Marika van Ai-Li
The Native Bee Society of BC’s third AGM was held on the evening of February 7, 2022. This was one of our most thrilling AGM’s yet, gracefully facilitated by outgoing President Sarah Johnson.
Incoming Co-President, Lori Weidenhammer opened with a territorial acknowledgment, shining light on Indigenous communities and pollinators and their interwoven stewardship of Camas and other plant relations since time immemorial. She acknowledged our responsibility as members of the Native Bee Society of BC to honor these relationships side by side through our work. Our outgoing Vice President, Marika van Ai-Li led us through our 2021 Year-in-Review, highlighting our activities from the previous year including community workshops and webinars, the birth of our popular NBSBC Bee Tracker on iNaturalist, several features on the radio and news media and three wonderful Quarterly Buzz newsletters.
Next was our formal AGM. Many of us were left sitting on the edge of our seats we voted in two new Co-Presidents and a treasurer, along with several new Members-at-Large. An exciting trend to witness is that our roots are spreading their reach - from K’ómoks territory (Fanny Bay), to snʕickstx tmxʷúlaʔxʷ territory (Castlegar) to Dënéndeh territory (Dawson Creek)! We warmly welcome Miranda Moll (Co-President) Nikki Donkersley (Treasurer), and Members-at-Large Bonnie Zand, Erin Udal, Sky Jarvis and Tamara Litke to our Board of Directors. Check out our new additions and continuing members here.
Lori Weidenhammer reviewed the successes and beautiful photography collected across the province from the NBSBC Bee Tracker across 2021. Check out all the fascinating submissions on iNaturalist. Lincoln Best highlighted some of the weirdest bees of BC, such as Diadasia australis (a cactus pollinator with few records in BC) and some of the rarest flowers - including the beautiful mariposa’s of the interior province- Lyall’s Mariposa (Calochortus lyallii), Three-spot Mariposa (C. apiculatus), and Sagebrush Mariposa (C. macrocarpus).
In closing, Jen Woodin walked us through some of the exciting upcoming events at NBSBC. Some recurring events to keep an eye out for this year will be our Community of Practice events and the BC Bee Tracker. The BC Master Melittologist program is also carrying a lot of steam (see Lincoln Best’s contribution below for more on this)! All 2022 events can be found on our event page. There’s been an inviting climate of enthusiasm and energy at all NBSBC gatherings so far this year... With many new NBSBC events and membership engagement opportunities springing up, we expect an abundance of bee buzz across the province in 2022.
Bio Marika van Ai-Li, former NBSBC Vice President and current member-at-Large, is the Manager of Programs & Stewardship at the Environmental Youth Alliance. She oversees EYA's habitat restoration projects, native plant nursery and environmental education programs for youth facing barriers. She has a BSc in Applied Biology, Plant & Soil Sciences from UBC. She is also a native bee educator who is passionate about community engagement, and has led a variety of research, restoration and citizen science projects relating to native bees over the past decade.
by Martina Clausen
We are pleased to feature an abstract from a recently published article by our board member Martina Clausen. The study was part of Martina’s MSc thesis for her degree in Integrated Studies in Land and Food Systems at the University of British Columbia (UBC).
Citation: Clausen, M.A., Elle, E., Smukler, S.M. 2022. Evaluating hedgerows for wild bee conservation in intensively managed agricultural landscapes. Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment, Volume 326, 107814, ISSN 0167-8809,
Declines in wild bee populations have highlighted the need for research on the ecological requirements of wild bees. Wild bees provide essential pollination services to both agricultural crops and wild flowering plant species. Wild bee species are facing numerous threats, primarily the loss of natural habitats. The Delta Farmland & Wildlife Trust, a non-profit conservation organization in Delta, BC, incentivizes farmers to plant hedgerows consisting of native shrubs and trees on the edge of their production fields, mainly to create habitat for wildlife. In this study, the value of planted hedgerows was evaluated as foraging habitat for wild bees specifically. During the summers of 2015 and 2016, surveys examined bees and flowers in planted hedgerows, as well as remnant hedgerows and grass margins (two dominant habitats of field margins). The relationships between available floral resources and bee abundance and diversity, as well as bee-flower visitations, were analyzed and compared among these three habitat types.
Overall, wild bees collected in grass margins were more abundant and diverse compared to planted and remnant hedgerows. However, significant results were inconsistent between sampling methods and years, implying none of the habitat types stood out as clearly better. Bee-flower visitation records showed that bees primarily visited herbaceous species mostly found in grass margins (see Figure 1) while only a few of the recommended woody plant species for hedgerow plantings were visited.
Number of wild bee visitations by plant species from surveys in field margins in Delta, BC. The most visited plant species were Tufted Vetch (Viccia cracca) followed by Himalayan Blackberry (Rubus armeniacus) and Snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus). Native plant species are indicated with *.
These results may serve to help improve field edge management for the conservation of wild bee species. If properly planned and managed, grass margins offer promise as valuable alternatives or additions to woody hedgerows for wild bee conservation.
Learn more about the Delta Farmland and Wildlife Trust.
Bio Martina Clausen is an agroecologist with a background in environmental engineering, originally from Switzerland. She has an MSc from UBC studying the conservation of native bees in agricultural landscapes and was a member of the development team for EYA’s Pollinator Citizen Science Program.
Bugs 101: "Insects are Arthropods with Wings"
What I Learned from a Free Online Entomology Course
by Paula Cruise
I’m a plant person, not a bee person. But one of my goals for 2022 is to register for the Master Melittologist Program with Oregon State University in order to improve my bee identification skills using anatomical features. The MM Program is an introductory, self-paced course of study on native bee biology and ecology that includes native bee specimen collection in the service of creating Oregon’s first Bee Atlas. There is considerable overlap in the bee populations of Oregon, Washington, and BC and OSU accepts out-of-state applicants. Indeed, there are a number of Master Melittologist apprentices in this province and the Native Bee Society is very fortunate to have Lincoln Best, a taxonomist and researcher with the Oregon Bee Atlas, on our Board of Directors.
My enthusiasm for insect pollinators outweighs my knowledge and while I do have a degree in environmental science from the last millennium and I am pretty sure I attended at least some of the entomology classes on offer, my insect memories really do not extend far beyond 6 legs, at least one pair of wings, and a pair of antennae. So I thought it best to invest some time in learning about basic insect biology before I delved into distinguishing the features of tergal and sternal segments and detecting the presence or absence of a pygidial plate. An online search for free entomology courses revealed that the educational platform Coursera offers Bugs 101: Insect-Human Interactions. I considered that maybe I was overqualified for a course with “Bugs 101” in the title. I was wrong.
Coursera is an open online education provider that works with universities and other organizations offering courses, certifications, and degrees in a variety of subjects. Taught by Dr. Maya Evenden and her associates at the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Science, Bugs 101 is presented in 12 modules, each one comprising 2-3 hours of on-demand videos, quizzes, and assignments. Users can select multiple languages, synchronize the text with the video script, and make Bugs 101 a for-credit course. While the course is designed to be completed over 12 weeks, learners can extend the deadlines as many times as needed.
The 12 modules commence with a look at the diversity of arthropods and where insects sit in the evolutionary tree along with their adaptations that allow them to inhabit and dominate nearly every ecosystem on Earth. By the end of Module 4, I had a good understanding of insect physiology and life cycles before learning about the role of insects in the human world as decomposers, pollinators, plant pests, and disease vectors. There are two modules on Integrated Pest Management and biological control before the course finishes with a discussion of insect conservation and the role of insects in art and culture.
The material is thoroughly yet concisely prepared and clearly presented via videos and graphics, with the narration available as a downloadable pdf. While the information is accessible to novice learners, I was impressed with the technical nature of the content and was challenged by the quizzes. Each module comes with optional extra reading so there are lots of opportunities for further inquiry. I enjoyed how the course focused on the relationships of insects in the human world and, while not everyone will feel the need to complete all 12 modules, I found the experience of journeying through the course highly informative and engaging. The section on insect leg adaptations for different habitats from running, swimming, jumping, digging to catching prey was particularly fascinating. I would recommend this course for anyone interested in the natural world as a stand-alone unit or as an introduction to bees and other insect pollinators.
Find out more about Coursera's Bugs 101: Insect-Human Interactions.
Find out more about Oregon State University's Master Melittologist Program below.
Paula Cruise (she/her/they) is a learner of the natural world, who is particularly curious about plant-pollinator relationships and how to share this knowledge with others. She is an active board member for the Native Bee Society of BC and for Hives for Humanity, two non-profits that seek to create equitable access to nature and meaningful opportunities to share in its gifts and in its stewardship. She is a recent settler on the Sunshine Coast in the shared space of xwésám (“when the water bubbles”) on the unceded land of the shíshálh people and stelḵáya (“place of the wolf”) on the unceded land of the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh people. Besides being excited to meet the people, plants, and pollinators of this place, she is looking forward to growing lots of native flowers and tasty vegetables and taking long hikes and cold swims with her dogs, Bailey and Juno.
Master Melittologist Program
A Bee Club for People who Love Wild Bees
by Lincoln Best
This new online program hosted by the Oregon State University Extension Service is for anyone interested in going deeper into wild bee biology and ecology. The program is self-paced, and stepwise. There are 5 online modules covering the basics of wild bee field work and data collection, bee biology and ecology, and taxonomy and systematics. Beyond the online modules, there are numerous lectures and additional resources introducing the breadth of wild bee biodiversity. Catch a Buzz a monthly community zoom session provides additional opportunities for education and Q&A. Our monthly Out-of-State Mentor Session provides instruction on how to identify bees, lectures about wild bee biodiversity and floral relations, and allow you to connect with people in your area. In Oregon this training helps prepare Oregonians for the Oregon Bee Atlas. Currently there is no taxonomic support for specimen-based collections outside of Oregon, however the NBSBC hosts an excellent and very active iNaturalist project, the NBSBC Bee Tracker. This is a great way to scientifically document and learn about the hundreds of wild bee species in your area. To learn more about how we are supporting the program in BC, watch our program info session on YouTube.
If you’re interested in learning more about the Master Melittologist program at Oregon State University, view our website. That's where you can register to join a growing community of amateur and expert wild bee scientists.
Lincoln Best has joined the faculty of Horticulture at Oregon State University where he supports the Oregon Bee Atlas and Master Melittologist programs. He hosts an annual BC Native Bee Course in the southern Okanagan. Lincoln manages an international research portfolio as an environmental consultant working with a broad spectrum of stakeholders. He is interested in developing restoration solutions that optimize biodiversity in western North American ecosystems.
Natives vs Nativars: An Overview
by Jen Hayes
The USDA NRCS defines a native plant as “a plant that is a part of the balance of nature that has developed over hundreds or thousands of years in a particular region or ecosystem”. The word cultivar is an abbreviation of cultivated variety, which references specific varieties of plants that have been developed through plant breeding. Cultivars are typically named, which helps with their identification: perhaps you are familiar with ‘Roma’ tomatoes, or ‘Moonshine’ Yarrow, or ‘Apricot Nectar’ roses; these are all cultivars. A nativar, then, is a particular type of cultivar: a plant variety bred or selected from a wild-type native.
With the growing interest in native plant gardening (especially for wildlife), nativars have gained increasing attention for both their positive and potentially negative attributes. Starting with the positive, nativars may help resolve the slow growth of the native plant market. Many wild plants do not conform to retail expectations: they may not be scalable to nursery-level production; they may perform poorly in pots and on shelves. Nativars, in turn, can be bred for improvements where wild-types fall short. They are also bred for many of the same reasons that other ornamentals have cultivars: they possess traits we humans find aesthetically pleasing. Nativars are typically selections of wild-type natives with some sort of positive trait. They may display tolerance traits such as drought or disease resistance, or ornamental traits such as color, bloom size, or architecture. Though they are native ornamental plants, nativars do not undergo some of the more intense horticultural breeding practices, such as those required to develop blue roses or galaxy-patterned petunias.
The concerns that commonly arise in natives-vs-nativars conversations usually relate to ecological values. Though some ornamental traits can be achieved through changes in a single gene, these effects may alter the ecological value of the plant. Colour, for example, is a relatively simple gene. Is it safe to say then, that the same people and insects who love wild California poppies will love the semi-double Eschscholzia californica ‘XL Jelly Beans’? Perhaps not. Research projects, including my own in the Garden Ecology Lab at Oregon State University, typically seek to answer one question when comparing nativars and their wild relatives: Do native cultivars provide the same resources to wildlife as wild-type natives? Thus far, research seeking to answer this question has yielded mixed results. We have not yet established any clear patterns of pollinator preference across plant types, plant families, etc. Within a species, we can more confidently assess whether pollinators prefer wild type or cultivar. However, we cannot make general claims without further research.
Eschscholzia californica (wild type) E. californica ‘XL Jelly Beans’
Photo by Jen Hayes Photo courtesy of Territorial Seed Company
Why native plants are likely the best for native bees
When selecting plants, it is essential to consider the ecological relationship between bees and their host plants. Most bees require pollen and nectar for sustenance and for provisioning their nests. While it isn’t difficult to go to a nursery and pick out a plant that produces these resources, it’s important to consider how bees interact with those flowers while foraging. Cultivars that have extra petals (such as semi-doubles, doubles, and full doubles) often produce more pollen and nectar than single blooms, but the additional petals may actually inhibit bees from accessing a plant’s resources. This is why we typically see wild roses on pollinator planting lists: wild species have very open flowers, whereas traditional red roses are tightly wound with smaller openings. Any alterations in floral morphology may impact what types of bees are able to successfully forage from those flowers.
Another consideration is specialization. It is estimated that 30-50% of bees in North America are highly specialized, and of those specialists, 60% are quite rare. To support specialists, we should emphasize choosing plants associated with specialist pollinators. Since generalist bees can forage from a diversity of plant species, genera, and families, they are likely able to find the resources they require within a suite of plants chosen for specialists.
It is not yet clear if specialist bees recognize and utilize cultivated varieties of their host plants, though case studies that exist would suggest erring on the side of caution. Colletes aestivalis, a Heuchera specialist native to Pennsylvania, USA, was thought to be extinct, as it had not been seen in nearly a century until last year. Although the horticultural industry has produced a great diversity of ornamental Heuchera varieties, this rare bee was found foraging on the rather scrappy-looking, rare, and native Heuchera alba (Avril, 2021).
This next case study does not involve bees, but rather a specialist beetle. A study evaluated herbivory and oviposition rates of the specialist ninebark beetle, Calligrapha spiraeae, on the native ninebark shrub and two cultivars. One of the cultivars had yellow-leaves and the other had purple-red leaves. The authors found the purple-leaved cultivars to have significantly less use by the ninebark beetle compared to the other two varieties. They hypothesized this was related to the altered phenolic compounds in the leaves (e.g., tannins and anthocyanins), which are altered in the breeding process (Tenczar & Krischik, 2007). Although color is a relatively simple trait in plants, color changes can alter plant-insect relationships. We know that bees do not forage on leaves, but we have observed that changes in flower color can correspond with changes in pollen color, thus altering the components of pollen nutrition in cultivars.
A final concern about native cultivars is the potential for “cultivar escape”. Cultivars that readily cross pollinate with the wild-type native may allow for the establishment of non-native genotypes and phenotypes in natural environments. This could result in some of the disruptions in plant-insect relationships as discussed above, though outcomes could potentially be worse for specialist species who cannot forage from native cultivars.
The figure below illustrates three types of camas along with their pollen colours. Great camas, Camassia leichtlinii, is the wild-type, along with two cultivars. Investigation of their pollen colors reveal that the wild type and ‘blue-heaven’ nativar both have bright yellow pollen, while the white cultivar has a much lighter pollen colour pictured here on the leg of a yellow-faced bumble bee.
Top row: Great camas (wild type), ‘Blue Heaven’ (nativar), ‘Sacajawea’ (cultivar) Bottom row (pollen close-ups): Great camas, ‘Blue Heaven’, ‘Sacajawea’ Photos: J. Hayes
Natives vs Nativars: What’s the right answer?
Perhaps the most important question to consider when selecting plants from a nursery is this: What are your gardening goals? If you are a hobbyist gardener who values aesthetic over ecological value, then you may be excited to discover that some of your favorite native plants come in other colors, shapes, and sizes. If you are a honeybee enthusiast, then you may even want to include non-native plants that produce high quantities of nectar to support your hive. However, if your goal is to create a pollinator sanctuary for rare species, then finding the “most native” plants from your ecoregion is likely the best move. Natives are also best if ecological restoration is one of your goals.
When it comes to gardening, there is no one-size-fits-all answer. We do know that landscapes planted with native species often support greater insect abundance and diversity than those planted primarily with non-native ornamentals. It is unclear how exactly native cultivars will fit into this narrative, outside of plants that have already been evaluated or have obvious morphological changes that will limit their ecological value to wildlife.
Stay up to date on my research, evaluating native bee preference to 7 Oregon native plant species and 1-3 cultivars by subscribing to Oregon State University’s Garden Ecology Lab Blog.
Avril, T. (2021). Meet the Philly kid who helped solve the strange case of a missing bee and a rare Pa. plant. The Philadelphia Inquirer.
Tenczar, E. & Krischik, V. (2007). Effects of New Cultivars of Ninebark on Feeding and Ovipositional Behavior of the Specialist Ninebark Beetle, Calligrapha spiraeae (Coleoptera: Chrysomelidae). HortSci 42(6): 1-4.
Natives vs Nativars
Baker et al. (2020). Suitability of native milkweed (Asclepias) species versus cultivars for supporting monarch butterflies and bees in urban gardens. PeerJ 8:e9823.
Ricker, J. (2019). Suitability of Cultivated Forms of Native Shrubs to Support Pollinators. (University of Connecticut Thesis).
White, A. (2016). From Nursery to Nature: Evaluating Native Herbaceous Flowering Plants Versus Native Cultivars for Pollinator Habitat Restoration. (University of Vermont Thesis).
On Native Plants
Burghardt et al. (2009). Impact of Native Plants on Bird and Butterfly Diversity in Suburban Landscapes. Conservation Biology 23: 219–224.
Tallamy and Shropshire. 2009. Ranking Lepidopteran use of native versus introduced plants. Conservation Biology 23: 941-947.
Jen Hayes is a graduate student pursuing a PhD degree in Horticulture & Entomology at Oregon State University. Jen is a Vermonter who is passionate about pollinators; she fell in love with native bees as an undergraduate in the Ricketts Lab at the University of Vermont. Since her first exposure to bee research, she has had the opportunity work on pollinator studies in Vermont, Ecuador, North Dakota, and Oregon. She is interested in how human-developed landscapes, such as farms and gardens, can achieve dual goals of pollinator conservation and plant productivity.
Bee Profile: The Long-tongued “Bizzy Lizzy” (Anthophora terminalis)
by Lori Weidenhammer
Trible: Anthophorini (Digger Bees)
Genus: Anthophora (“flower bearer” in Greek)
Species: Anthophora terminalis
Common names: Orange-tipped Wood-digger (most digger bees nest in the ground), Red-tipped Digger Bee
Gestalt: robust and fuzzy, dark integument—amount of hair can vary
Size: 11-13.5 mm
Mandibles: three teeth
Wings: dark veins, third submarginal cell almost square
Legs: light-coloured setae on back legs, red feet
Head: grey, black tawny hair
Thorax: mix of grey, tawny and black hair
Abdomen: black integument, grey bands (often worn down in the middle) with an orange tip (T5)
Males: yellow protuberant clypeus with two black dots, tend to look grey or tawny
Foraging behavior: ability to hover and fly very quicky, ability to buzz pollinate
Active Season: May to September
Male behavior: patrol preferred floral sites
Nests: rotting wood, pithy stems, lined with a waxy secretion, partitions made from chewed plant material, opening approx. 6-8 mm in diameter.
Native region: Holarctic, widely found in North America, including the far north
Parasites: Melecta and Brachymelecta
I first encountered this frantically busy and noisy female bee in my mom’s garden in Cactus Lake, Saskatchewan. She was very fast and noisy, hovering over flowers to drink and then zipping across the garden from patch to patch of her favored flowers. She likes to forage with her long tongue fully extended, the ultimate derpy bee. Not one for the shallow Asteracea, she made her rounds from clover to Phacelia tanacetifolia to the mint. It was challenging to get good photos of her until I found her one morning sleeping with her mandibles clamped down on the leaf of a false sunflower (Heliopsis). She has a dark orange tail light on her butt, which I suppose could be confused with a leafcutter with orange setae on its abdomen.
I’ve also seen a number of orange-tipped wood digger bees going crazy for Monarda fistulosa in a meadow in the foothills of southern Alberta. It’s such a wonderful sight to see them insert their tongues in the long corollas of this sweet-smelling plant and suck up that bountiful nectar. I’m begging you to plant this variety of bee balm in your garden because it attracts all sorts of interesting native bees.
Orange-tipped wood-digger bees are unusual for Anthophora because instead of nesting in soil, they tend to nest in rotting wood. Some Anthophora dig their nests and others use existing tunnels created by other insects. Anthophora terminalis excavates its tunnels and also modifies suitable pre-existing tunnels, using the sawdust to line the nest and create the walls between cells. If there is suitable amount of nesting material in one area, they will nest in aggregations. There can be a number of them nesting in a dead log, which could easily be mistaken for a nest of bumble bees. In an experiment with nesting blocks in Minnesota the bees expanded the holes in the untreated pine and Douglas fir and used the sawdust mixed with mud to make the cell walls.
There are generally two kinds of nesting bee: renters and builders. The renters are opportunistic and use existing holes, tunnels and crevices that suit their needs. Bees can be very adaptible when creating nests. It would make sense that any way they could conserve energy making the nest and save it for provisioning the nest with pollen and laying eggs would be advantageous to the survival of her offspring. Many ground-nesting bees dig their own holes, but sometimes they will use existing holes as well, sometimes even ones dug out by other bees. Cavity-nesting bees can even use man-made materials like plastic bags and caulk in a pinch. The orange-tipped wood-digger bee does have some ability to excavate—not in dense wood, the way Xylopcopa bees can, but in soft pulpy plant stems or rotting wood. She then uses the pith or sawdust mixed with mud she’s gathered as a kind of drywall to make the partitions that protect each egg. She’s kind of like a home renovation expert.
Keep your eye out for these “Bizzy Lizzies” this summer and see if you can follow one from the flowers she’s foraging from to where she might be nesting. Please share your observations on our iNaturalist Bee Tracker Project. You can also look at the species page on the project to see photos of observations from last year.
Lori Weidenhammer, aka Madame Beespeaker, is a founding member and current co-president of the NBSBC. She is the author of Victory Gardens for Bees: A DIY Guide to Saving the Bees published by Douglas and MacIntyre. As a food security volunteer and activist, Lori works with students of all ages on eating locally and gardening for pollinators. Lori is originally from Treaty 6 Territory in Saskatchewan the original lands of the Cree, Saulteaux, Dene, Dakota, Lakota, Nakota and the homeland of the Métis Nation, and is grateful to live and work in unceded territory of the Coast Salish nations. Lori's web site is Victory Gardens for Bees (https://beespeakersaijiki.blogspot.com/)
Follow Lori on Instagram @beespeaker
Bee Profile: Yellow-banded Bumble Bee (Bombus terricola)
Through the Lens of a Bee-obsessed Human
by Sarah Johnson
Hello Quarterly Buzz readers! This is Sarah Johnson writing, the scientist famed (ha, ha) for founding the Native Bee Society of BC. I have recently retired from my Presidential position, so now I have all the time in the world to wax poetic about bumble bees in our newsletter to my heart’s content (amidst other small tasks such as finishing my PhD while living remotely in the wilderness, and continuing as a board member, of course).
As a certified bumble bee devotee, selecting which species to choose for this article was perhaps a more difficult decision than was necessary. Some may say I have an inordinate fondness for bumble bees (bordering on obsession). So much so, that I have experienced several awkward encounters with people I didn’t realize were close enough to hear me until it was too late… while I rambled sweet nothings to a particularly beautiful bumble bee. And they are all particularly beautiful in their own little buzzy ways! One of these uncomfortable encounters was a former upstairs neighbour, who may or may not have realized I was talking to a bee. Likely it didn’t matter what invisible being I was gushing over, as all assumptions were strange enough that they didn’t seem keen to linger too long around me after that.
Given this love for all bumble bees – I even have a soft spot in my heart for the cuckoo bumble bees of the subgenus Psithyrus, whose females invade the nests of other hard-working species, murder their queen, and force her workers to do their bidding – you can imagine what an existential struggle this was for me. This decision alone took several days! I cycled through several options before finally reaching an epiphany.
First, I thought, perhaps the white-tail bumble bee (Bombus jonellus)? A species typically associated with northern tundra habitats, but I personally had the excitement of recording one of BC’s southernmost observations! This observation occurred during the first field season of my PhD in 2019 which took place in the West Chilcotin on the unceded territories of the Nuxalk and Ulkatcho peoples. Unfamiliar with the species and particularly puzzled over identification of these somehow “different” bees, I first posted some less-than-stellar photos on Twitter, with not much luck solving the mystery. I then brought the two specimens I had collected to my first bumble bee-focused conference, BOMBUSS (Building Our Methods By Using Sound Science) 2.0 in Toronto in the fall of 2019. Here I sought out in-person review by two of my bumble heroes, Dr. Paul Williams and Dr. Leif Richardson. I must admit I was quite tickled that neither of them could give me a definitive identification right away (inwardly I sighed in relief that this wasn’t some easily identified common species I had somehow mistaken for something interesting). And so one specimen ended up making its way across the world to the UK with Paul for comparison to the synoptic collection of bumble bees at the Natural History Museum in London (does this mean I am an international scientist of mystery now?!). Confirmed, B. jonellus! But, not a perfect fit for this article…
Next, I considered, maybe the high-country bumble bee (Bombus kirbiellus)? A species in the subgenus Alpinobombus featuring mostly high arctic specialist bees in Canada. This species was once elusive for me, but I have since found them in all sorts of places, including several locales in both BC and Alberta. If one is paying close enough attention, this beautiful bee can be discovered on most mountains if you climb high enough into the subalpine, occasionally even one of the most common in magical subalpine landscapes such as this:
Again, though, not quite the bee I was looking for...
I am lucky enough to have ended up in a career where I get to talk about and write about and obsess over my favourite group of organisms quite frequently, but my current occupation requires me to adhere to a scientific writing style, which is perhaps a bit more (dare I say it) bland. Scientific writing leaves less room to tell stories about my more personal connection with bumble bees, and how different small and silly interactions with them over the course of about a third of my life have shaped my feelings about them (and I have oh so many feelings!). So, as I was lying in bed with my cat trying to plan this piece in my head, one particular species kept recurring as I recalled some of my sillier stories. This species has been particularly formative throughout my career in bumble bee conservation. So, in the end, I chose the yellow-banded bumble bee, Bombus terricola, a bee that has been by my side at different times in my life in different locations across Canada, including my beloved home of BC.
I completed my undergraduate and masters degrees at the University of Calgary, where I first really began paying attention to bumble bees. During my BSc, I ran a lab-focused project with a captive colony of bumble bees who were very angry with me for conducting experiments on them (honestly, I don’t blame them). Then during my MSc I ran a large-scale field project where I was studying the impacts of clearcut logging on bumble bee-pollinated wildflowers in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains in southern Alberta. I was tasked with netting and recording incidents of bumble bees within my field plots, but by then I had grown a nervous appreciation for the potency of their painful pointy butts. I also still had a very hard time remembering which arrangement of colours on those butts meant which species, so didn’t end up collecting any useable bee information and instead spent many agonizing hours poring over thousands upon thousands of wildflower seeds. My first big introduction to bumble bees and my first leap into understanding how to identify them occurred through my experience with another lab at the University of Calgary doing work in southern Albertan agriculture at the tail end of my masters and the year following. I was hired because “I knew more things about bees” than my prospective boss, who was mostly interested in landscape ecology and effects of landscape configuration on whatever happened to live there. The skill testing questions about bumble bees in the interview mostly focused on highly specialized knowledge such as how many legs they had. All of these building block experiences with bumble bees laid the foundation for me successfully snaring my dream job as a Lead Biologist for the Bumble Bee Recovery Program with Wildlife Preservation Canada – which was my first big exposure to Bombus terricola beginning in the summer of 2017.
Wildlife Preservation Canada (WPC for short) is a small nonprofit conservation organization focused on hands-on conservation actions for the recovery of critically endangered species. The Native Pollinator Initiative, the program that I was responsible for running, had many different components including a large citizen science training program using the platform Bumble Bee Watch in parks in Ontario and Alberta, scientific monitoring surveys of wild bumble bees across Ontario, and most importantly, the development of a captive breeding program for the yellow-banded bumble bee. Bombus terricola is a species of special concern in Canada, and it is a transboreal species – meaning, they are largely associated with the boreal forest across Canada and their range extends from east to west, trending further north in the west including here in BC.
As is a common story with several other bumble bees at risk in North America, Bombus terricola used to be one of the most common species throughout its range but has, over the past 20-30 years, shown marked declines, some of the most dramatic of which have occurred in southern Ontario where I was doing most of my work with WPC. The species is absolutely beautiful, and right away I noticed how striking the contrast was between the golden yellow of their yellow hair bands and the deep black separating those bands – quite handy when you are trying to gracefully (ha!) catch queens in 8-foot-long telescopic insect nets off the tippy tops of willow trees in early spring. We needed to capture them to bring them into our lab facility, where we set them up in a home away from home (wooden nest box) and did our best to encourage them to lay eggs and raise offspring. We were working our way towards the eventual goal of maintaining a captively bred population to potentially reintroduce (with very careful thought and planning) into areas from which they had been extirpated. In my first field season, I was tasked with the goal of catching 40 spring queens for our breeding program while touring around to locations my predecessors had previously observed the species. Of course… this turned out to be a lot more difficult than bright-eyed and bushy-tailed new graduate Sarah had been led to believe.
This field season offered some of the first times that I had to get really confident with those netting skills that I failed to develop during my masters – luckily my second-in-command had a full field season of experience and a lot of patience with me. We travelled to all sorts of sites throughout southern Ontario but found that this particular season (following a very bad drought year in 2017) was a bit more difficult for tracking down yellow-banded bumble bees. Many of the sites that were very productive previously for our target species had fewer bumble bees of all sorts, and often no Bombus terricola at all. Though my netting skills left a bit to be desired, I had a keen eye for spotting the brilliant contrasting yellow and black, but in my increasing anxiety of not finding enough for our breeding program, I would often get so nervous that my target would end up buzzing away before I could pull the trigger to swipe at her. My anxiety continued to get the best of me throughout the continuing stressful season… the field team kept track of how many gorgeous golden ladies each of us had caught, and as spring started to wane, I was still at an ever embarrassing zero. Getting desperate, I called up my colleague and most trusted all-knowing bee expert Lincoln Best for help (a founding and continuing board member of the NBSBC and our main source of extensive Canadian bee knowledge), who was in Alberta at the time. Where should I go to find these mysterious beautiful bees? I was getting frantic! And of course, Lincoln had an answer for me – head north! We quickly packed up into the field car for the most epic of 15-hour road trips to Thunder Bay in search of greener pastures for the yellow-banded bumble bee.
We began searching right around Thunder Bay and our first few sites came up dry again. Feeling increasingly worried about the precarious status of my first big girl real job field season, we drove east to a small town Linc had suggested was especially good for this species when he had been sampling bees in Ontario many years prior. Though dandelions are non-native and not particularly nutritionally valuable for bumble bees, as one of the most common early-flowering species in the spring we often searched for lawns full of them as a starting point for surveys, as queens often aggregated there. We pulled up to a particularly weedy lawn of dandelion in front of a police station, and as I was parking, I rolled down the window and with my keen bee-locating eye, immediately saw a big beautiful Bombus terricola queen on a dandelion right beside the car. I slammed on the breaks (don’t worry, we were already going very slow), and urgently instructed one of my particularly skilled bee-catcher field assistants (he was in the lead for most yellow-banded queens caught) to GET. AFTER. THAT. BEE‼ He quickly stumbled out of the car with his net and deftly captured her. Everyone cheered (no, really, we all did!). And the location ended up being particularly fruitful, even for poor little nervous nelly Sarah – I finally caught my first target species! I am thankful to my second-in-command Hayley Tompkins for capturing my reaction on video. I think the joy and relief speaks for itself!
I am also an amateur photographer with a particular passion for bee photography, and my most “famous” photo was taken on this crazy northern trip – of course, of B. terricola. It has been broadly used for all sorts of news articles, as well as the recently published management plan for the recovery of B. terricola in Canada (now open for public review). I will let you in on a well-kept secret, oh exclusive reader of The Quarterly Buzz newsletter… this photo had much less to do with my camera skills and much more with our method of capture for queens in the spring. Since queens are so important for the bumble bee colony cycle, as they are the longest-lived of all bumble bee castes (queens, workers, and males) and critical in their role as mothers for the next generation, we took very good care to harm them as little as possible. However, for all queens collected, we needed a way to slow them down without injuring them, enough so that we could record what species they were before release.
For yellow-banded bumble bees, we needed them as calm and unstressed as possible for transport back to the captive breeding lab. So, we carried around little insulated lunch bags with ice packs in them to slip our vials of bees into, and the cool temperature sloooowed them right down without hurting them, in the same way that cooler temperatures in the fall and winter induce queens to slow down and look for cozy places to hibernate. This particular survey day had such a beautiful blue sky with a lovely willow tree in arm’s reach, so we placed one of our chilly queens on a branch to wander around. She was temporarily unable to fly, as internal body temperature must be much higher to support such an energetically costly mode of transportation. We then all hovered nearby with our cameras and phones taking videos and photos with a little bit more time than one might have for a photo shoot of a warm and active bee… and once she started to wake up a bit more we quickly captured her again. But shhhh, don’t tell anyone!
After two years I completed my time with WPC as I began to feel the pull to return to the province where I grew up, British Columbia. In fall 2018 I started my PhD studying how bumble bees are impacted by changing landscapes throughout the province. Little did I know that the special golden yellow bees would find their way into my heart here as well! My PhD research is primarily focused on the impacts of previous forest fire on bumble bee movement and diversity at a larger landscape scale, and the implications of those findings for wildfire management and pollinator conservation. During my first field season we toured around to a variety of forest fires in the Chilcotin, focusing on sampling a lot of different wildfires as a pilot investigation into how burns impact bumble bee abundance and diversity.
That first year in 2019 we only collected a single individual of Bombus terricola, so it wasn’t until my second field season this past summer of 2021 that they really made a big appearance back into my research life. Last summer we shifted focus from locations spread across many fires to intensive sampling from a backpacking camp at the transition zone of one fire that burned through a large area in Tweedsmuir Provincial Park in 2017. We set up many smaller sites in the unburned forest, along the edge of the forest-fire transition, and into the burned area. This sampling setup will allow me to take the bees that we captured at all these micro-sites and extract their DNA. Since bumble bees have a rather peculiar genetic structure which means that sisters are very highly related, we can construct maps of where sisters from each sampled colony were captured as a proxy for how individuals from colonies are dispersing through the landscape and how many colonies (groups of sisters) there were. These are both likely related to differences in habitat characteristics that were strongly modified by the fire. I am still hard at work processing these data, but I am super excited to learn what we found! With exceptionally more excitement because the area that we selected just happened to be an area with plentiful Bombus terricola! What are the chances?!
We hiked through the bush into our camp to stay for a few nights for every sampling trip and spent morning and afternoon downtime hanging around at camp. Given the persona that I have outlined here, it may not be surprising to you that much of my “down time” still involved chasing around and sweet talking the bumble bees that would visit us (much more pleasant than the persistent black fly and mosquito visitors we also had to endure). It was during these first few setup trips that I started to notice that there were quite a few yellow-banded bumble bees! They seemed to like hanging around camp and could often be seen perched upon our water jugs or flitting about tasting nectar from the fireweed growing out of the rock bluff we had set up our tents on.
I was not much of an experienced backpacker before this season, so I took the opportunity to really double down on leaning into my dirty backpacker field ecologist persona. It was at times an extremely hot year (as I’m sure all of you British Columbians recall), and my body is very effective at cooling itself through emitting copious amounts of sweat. As the season wore on, I must admit that perhaps my showers became less frequent, clothes got washed less, and I can proudly proclaim that, more than once, a beautiful Bombus terricola worker came to sample my nutrient wares – sipping delicately on my backpack straps for that sweet, sweet salty fluid. Only a dirtbag entomologist such as myself would find such joy in such a crudely intimate interaction with an insect. But that’s not the worst of it… if you are particularly squeamish you might want to skip this next bit. Of course, there are no toilets or even outhouses when the journey from the nearest small community is a 40 km rough dirt road drive plus a 7 km technically difficult hike into the remote wilderness. So, I honed my peeing-in-the-bush skills with pointed precision. I found one specific location that was easiest for me to crouch to do the deed, and was more loyal to that commode than others when we were back at camp. To my delight, I wasn’t the only one frequenting this particular spot. On multiple occasions my field assistant heard me exclaim with giddy glee as I fumbled to attempt to capture on video the most exciting human-pollinator interaction I have ever had – yes, for some reason, Bombus terricola found my pee ESPECIALLY delicious. I giggled maniacally to myself as I captured multiple instances of several yellow-banded bumble bees sampling my wares (view this intimate moment on YouTube). Yes, my relationship with Bombus terricola is VERY special.
After sharing these gross stories with the folks who generously let us stay with them during summer field work, my dear friend and mentor (and current cheerleader during the slow slog of post-field-collection data processing from this season) Fred gifted me with the most beautiful of embroideries featuring this most special of bees. He was not a fan of my pee story so that fortunately didn’t feature in this beautiful work of art, but I will certainly cherish it for the rest of my life. Because somehow, this species of bumble bee has been so influential in my development as both a scientist and bumble bee enthusiast, in a way that goes well beyond its beauty and, unfortunately, increasing rarity.
If you have any particularly special personal stories with bees, we would love to hear them! Feel free to contact us on social media or via our email, and consider sharing your story in an upcoming newsletter or blog series!
Check out the field guide Bumble Bees of North America by Paul Williams, Robbin Thorp, Leif Richardson and Sheila Colla (Princeton University Press, 2015) and references therein for more detail on most of the general biological knowledge about the bumble bees discussed here. An updated version is in development as we speak!
Sarah Johnson is a PhD student at Simon Fraser University studying bumble bee ecology and conservation in British Columbia. She has an MSc in Ecology from the University of Calgary and has worked in plant-pollinator research and native bee conservation across Canada for almost a decade, in academic, non-profit, and volunteer settings. She is also the founder of the Native Bee Society and served as its president from 2019 to 2022.
Artist Talk with Sarah Peebles
Dwelling: Engaging our Senses and Sense of Play through Art and Science
On Feb 20, 2022, the Native Bee Society of BC hosted an online artist talk with Sarah Peebles where she discussed her "Dwelling" series of installations incorporating nest sites for native bees and related works-in-progress. If you missed this fascinating and inspiring talk, or would like to view it again, you can watch it on the NBSBC YouTube channel:
Video: Native Bee Nest Sites by SP (6:30)
Video: Mining Bees nestbuilding at Dwelling - UMD site May 2019 (1:43) Dwelling series of habitat walls for native bees Video: Habitat Wall Dwelling at UMD with co-creator Lisa Kuder (1:26) Resonating Bodies - where art, pollination ecology & community intersect
Log Life: Invitation to Collaborate on a New Art Project
Sarah is currently developing a new series of outdoor, small site-specific works and is seeking a collaborating materials artist who identifies as Indigenous and who is interested in expressing their perspectives and relationship to the land through creating small objects (with or without language) that integrate into each site. The series will address the biology of forests, earth's biodiversity and human culture, with Indigenous perspectives integral to the work.
Concept: Each work will be situated at a log (or a tree with deadwood) where small groups of visitors will be invited to investigate and contemplate all life interactions surrounding the log, and also to listen to the interior of the log. Participants will include a field biologist and, where possible, a local Traditional Knowledge Keeper, who will offer their perspectives on and knowledge about the habitat surrounding the site and Indigenous cultural connections.
If you are intrigued and want to find out more, please download a PDF of Sarah's full description of the project, including reference photos, for more information.
Bio Sarah Peebles is a Toronto-based composer, improviser and installation artist. Her umbrella of projects, “Resonating Bodies”, addresses native bees, pollination ecology and biodiversity. Created in 2008, RB projects include collaborations with a range of artists, technicians and bee biologists and highlight outdoor habitat installations and "video-poems" among other works. Peebles' activities as a sound artist and composer include collaborations with musicians, visual artists and data visualizers, involving improvised performance, music for dance, multi-channel sound, radio, video/film, performance art, integrated media, sound installation & earth works. Details at http://www.sarahpeebles.net/and https://resonatingbodies.wordpress.com/.
Upcoming Events: Native Bee Study Group
Come and Chat Bees with Us!
by Bonnie Zand
This informal group meets monthly on the fourth Wednesday at 7:00 PM over Zoom to talk about bees. Group activities include sharing bee photos, bee stories, and bee knowledge. As we patiently wait for this year’s bee season to begin, the theme for March will be “The Last Bees of 2021.” To participate, please review your fall photos and choose some late season bees to share with us. All are welcome to attend, even if you don't have photos to share. To receive the Zoom link, sign up here.
Bonnie Zand is a new NBSBC board member based out of the Comox Valley, on Vancouver Island. She works in the intersections of pollinators and agriculture, running an IPM consulting company, Bonnie’s Bugs IPM, and leading the Vancouver Island Pests, Pollinators and Beneficials Project. Bonnie also contributes to pollinator conservation through outreach to garden clubs, bee clubs, and school groups, as well as through her work with the endangered Taylor’s Checkerspot Butterfly.
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