Drawn to Quebec: The Buzz about Bees

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Photo: Illustration © Bethann G. Merkle, 2014

Notes such as those accompanying this sketch could help you identify the bumblebees busily pollinating your geraniums and basil.

It could be argued that bees make the world work.

Their diversity and sheer numbers are astounding. Bees of all stripes pollinate Quebec City residents' veggie and berry patches, contribute to abundant harvests in Quebec's countryside and forests, and are also a key food source for birds and other small wildlife. This is equally true in much of the rest of the world.
And yet, bees are often disparaged, feared, or ignored. Worse, bees face a host of threats. As a result, better public and scientific understanding of bees is essential for their conservation and protection.

By the numbers

By the year 2000, some 20,000 bee species had been described worldwide, and this number is expected to increase. At least 4,000 species of bees are involved in the pollination of wild plants and food crops in North America alone. In 2000, ag-related pollination by bees was worth an estimated $14.6 billion in the U.S. Worldwide, close to a third of human food production involves bees.

A key bee clarification

Not all bees are honey bees. Even our most familiar - the fuzzy, slower-moving, and relatively large bumblebee - doesn't produce surplus honey. Two hundred and fifty species of bumblebees belong to the genera Bombus. They form small colonies of fewer than 50 individuals - the majority of which, instead of storing up honey for the winter, simply die in autumn. Only queen bees that have successfully mated will overwinter. The next spring, these queens will lay their fertilized eggs and establish brand-new colonies. Bumblebees are only aggressive if threatened.

In comparison, the bees we owe our gratitude to for their "liquid gold" are the aptly named honey bees (Apis mellifera). In contrast with the bold colour blocks (yellow, black, brown) of bumblebees, honey bees have many stripes. Because they tend to be noticeably smaller and less fuzzy than bumblebees, you might think they are wasps. Though they live in colonies of hundreds or thousands, honey bees are unaggressive unless threatened. Because these bees typically winter in large numbers, they produce surplus honey and honeycomb.

To bee or not to bee

Melittologists (scientists who study bees) agree that science has only scratched the surface of many bee mysteries. For example, major projects in the past decade have barely begun to consolidate what researchers know about North American bees.

The causes of colony collapse disorder (as the severe and international decline in bee populations is commonly known) are also of great interest. A handful of issues are thought to contribute to bee declines: habitat loss due to agricultural intensification, urbanization, pollution, pesticides, diseases and parasites that spread from managed bees to wild populations, and climate change.

In 2013, a prime example of the unintended consequences of human-influenced change in bee behaviour was announced by University of Guelph researchers. While studying bees in Toronto, J. Scott MacIvor and Andrew E. Moore discovered two distinct species of bees using plastic polymers for nest construction. One species used fragments of plastic bags as they would have used leaves, while the other used a plastic-based outdoor building caulking material as it would have used tree resin. The scientists found that the bees are actually experimenting and think this may be because plastic garbage is ubiquitous. Considering we now live in what the scientists are calling a "plastic-rich" environment, bees may gain an advantage from adapting to use plastics. However, there are also concerns that issues such as high moisture and the chemical by-products of plastics could negate any adaptive benefit the bees might gain from using plastics.

Bee basics with a scientific basis

For an enjoyable read based on sound science, bee fans might enjoy professor-naturalist Bernd Heinrich's Bumblebee Economics (published by Harvard University Press, 2004). In keeping with the illustrated theme of this column, bee enthusiasts of all ages will be delighted by biologist Jay Hosler's Clan Apis comic book and series about a honey bee named Nyuki.

Online, www.xerces.org, www.bumblebeewatch.org, and www.wildlifepreservation.ca/species-in-need/canadian-species/ all provide information on bees at risk, how to identify and monitor the bees near you, and how to create pollinator-friendly habitat at home.