What’s the buzz on native bees: A key underdog in pollination and ecosystems

What’s the buzz on native bees?

A key underdog in pollination and ecosystems

What’s the buzz on native bees?

A key underdog in pollination and ecosystems

By Lucas Napier-Macdonald, Communications Volunteer, National Environmental Treasure

A new global bee map highlights the importance of native bee species, many of which are often overshadowed by honeybees.

By some counts, Canada has over 850 different species of native bees. Not just the traditional yellow and black, they come in many colours, including brown, blue, and, in the case of the sweat bee, a metallic green. Although some are social — meaning they gather in hives — most are solitary, living underground, in hollow plant stems or tree burrows. But what’s the one thing that the majority of native Canadian bees have in common? Most don’t produce honey. Even the native bumblebee produces a meager amount of honey, compared to the industrious non-native honeybee.

Green sweat bee on pink flower
Jorge Figueiredo from Getty Images/Canva

The honeybee was introduced to Canada 400 years ago from its natural home in Europe and Western Asia. Luckily for this  striped critter, it was brought to a place favourable to its survival. According to a map published in Current Biology, Issue #31, the best climate for bees lies within two bands encircling the earth, one north of the Tropic of Cancer and one south of the Tropic of Capricorn. In other words: temperate climates outside of the tropics.

Why might this be? Quoted in Smithsonian magazine, Paul Williams, an entomologist at the Natural History Museum in London, says there are probably dual factors. As mentioned earlier, bees often nest in the ground. Tropical earth tends to be moist and favour the development of fungus, which would spoil a bee’s food supply.

Furthermore, desert and desert-adjacent areas get superblooms, which are “great flushes of flowers after there’s been rain,” as Williams puts it. Just like human beings love an all-you-can-eat-buffet, bees love a landscape where food supplies are seemingly unending.

bee on yellow flower on field
Supeecha from Getty Images/Canva

The contributions of native Canadian bees

Although native Canadian bees won’t fill anyone’s honey pot, we cannot discount their importance in our kitchens. Bees are essential for the continued flourishing of wild and cultivated crops. Enthusiastic pollinators who often start working early in the season and finish work late are essential for transferring pollen from flower to flower and allowing plants to reproduce. Blueberries, squash, cherries, and pears are just a few of the dozens of crops grown in Canada that bees pollinate.

Box of blueberries at farm
Linda Raymond from Getty Images/Canva

“People don’t realize the vast majority of free pollination comes from wild bees” said Shelia Colla to the CBC, an assistant professor of Environmental Science at York University and Director of the Native Pollinator Research Lab. It may come as a shock that approximately one in three bites of every meal is made possible by the activity of wild bees.

Not only do higher bee populations increase the quantity of a crop produced, but they’ve also been linked to a higher-quality crop. According to Kyle Bobiwash, assistant professor in the Department of Entomology at the University of Manitoba, the more a fruit-bearing plant is pollinated, the more succulent and flavourful the berries. As if we need another reason to love busy bees, they help make our blueberry pies richer and fruit salads juicier.

Bobiwash recently headed a study, published in the Royal Society’s journal Biological Sciences, that found that a lack of bees, both wild and managed, has negatively affected crops in British Columbia and across the U.S.

Beyond our tastebuds

Although it is great, one must wonder if the conservation of bees is only worthwhile for its effect on grocery store shelves. Colla thinks not. As she argues in her essay for Canadian Geographic, “The perceived value of bees is bound up in their ability to perform ecosystem services for us: ‘we must save the bees to save ourselves.’ The intrinsic value of bees as wildlife species with unique natural histories is rarely mentioned.”

Colla reminds readers that these bees, like all species, have a place within the ecosystem, “relationships with microorganisms, parasitoids, plants, birds and mammals,” and one that we have barely begun to understand. To allow them to disappear would be a huge detriment to science, food systems and our understanding of the interconnectedness of life.

Rather than bee condos or “bumblebee boxes,” Colla recommends recreating bees’ natural surroundings to facilitate their survival: flowers they tend to like (willow and goldenrod) or places where they tend to nest (rotting logs). She also recommends contributing to helpful databases like Bumblebee Watch, or even making entreaties to one’s local politician.

Curious readers are invited to listen to our podcast, “What the f*** is biodiversity?”, where Colla talks about the importance of native bees.

flower on tree stump in backyard
Savoilic from Getty Images/Canva