by Jenn Smith July 31, 2019
Before the rusty-patched bumble bee was listed as endangered in 2010, researchers wanted to know how many were still buzzing around. They spent more than 600 hours over eight years navigating through Ontario’s brush looking for the bees, but only spotted three, one in 2005 and two more in 2009.
Researchers were unable to come up with a population estimate and Wildlife Preservation Canada says a rusty-patched bumble bee hasn’t been seen since.
While the federal government works to protect the honey bee, its money-making counterpart, experts across the country say it has stolen the spotlight from the rusty-patched bumble bee and more than 800 other wild bee species native to Canada, leaving them in ruins.
“We need to recognize they are declining … We can’t even track how many there are and we aren’t measuring them,” said Carolyn Callaghan, a senior conservation biologist for terrestrial wildlife at the Canadian Wildlife Federation.
“I remember having to stop at a gas station without needing gas to clean off my windshield and grill, just covered in insects … now I can go back and forth 10 times and I don’t need to clean.”
Wild bee species are responsible for every one in three bites of food at the supper table and help maintain natural ecosystems, but the government has no standard measures for counting or protecting them.
“Management companies don’t need to report what the prevalence of bees are or where the bees go,” said Sheila Colla, an assistant professor of Environmental Studies at York University.
“We haven’t learned our lesson yet from other wild stock … People don’t realize the vast majority of free pollination comes from wild bees.”
Right now, eight wild bee species are listed under Canada’s species risk registry. The rusty-patched bumble bee, gypsy cuckoo bumble bee and the macropis cuckoo bee have lost at least 50 per cent of their total population and are classified as endangered, which grants them protection.
The sable island sweat bee and western bumble bee occidentalis subspecies are threatened while the American bumble bee, yellow-banded bumble bee and western bumble bee mckayi subspecies have a special concern status — both categories mean at least 30 per cent of their total population is gone, but only threatened species receive any further safety.
And Callaghan says the species on the list are only the ones we know about.
“I’m concerned this isn’t a chicken little thing,” she said. “I don’t think we’ve recognized the value of pollinators and haven’t done much in the way of addressing the problem … Ecosystems without pollinators would be in a very depraved situation.”
While the government has no standardized approach to tracking and protecting wild bees, Steve Jarovek, a research biologist with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, says the issue isn’t as bad as it seems.
“There’s a lot of research on 180-190 species of wild bees and we have a good handle on their abundance and diversity and how it changes through time,” he said.
But Jarovek added that the stats rely on independent researchers across the country whose papers are not compiled in one place and may have their own methods with hyper-specific focuses, making the data harder to generalize.
While he did say some researchers are trying to put all the numbers in one place, he hopes a new government initiative called the Living Laboratories Initiative can be the start of the standardized protocol, although the idea would only work if bee researchers successfully apply to the program.
“We could have monitoring sites within these labs to know what the bee fauna is and track the goal over time,” Jarovek said. “It’s a big undertaking, but we want to try it within the living lab network.”
Honey bees are imported from South America and are valued for their honey and wax. They act as livestock, with coddling from beekeepers and annual population reports. This year’s report accounted for half of Canada’s honey bees and showed about one in four died during the winter, an average loss. But their colony numbers are growing each year.
“The relationship with honey bees has been over millennia with human beings, so it’s a long and very important relationship,” Callaghan said.
But they also carry infections when arriving in Canada, which can be fatal for Canadian bees.
“The problem with a novel disease brought into a population that hasn’t evolved with it, you don’t catch the decline until it’s too late,” York University’s Colla said. “We don’t have a lot of data on the 800 species, if a disease was introduced tomorrow … I’m not sure we have resources for that.”
Leonard Foster, a professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of British Columbia, says beekeepers and farmers also need to be mindful of how their practice can affect wild bees.
“The industry has the tools, for the most part, to fight the issues with bees, but not everyone follows the rules or is aware of what they could be doing … the effort (to protect bees) makes their business non-profitable,” he said.
“Beekeepers don’t work in a vacuum — if they bring bees to a crop that has been sprayed with something they doesn’t know about, they could all die.”
But while honey bees may pose problems, their spotlight is useful.
“Honeybees are the flagship insect which helps the others,” Foster said. “The public has an easy time getting behind them. Many things we might do for honeybees can help wild bees.”
All bees face some of the same threats including a lack of biodiversity, climate change and pesticides but, wild bees also have to deal with fewer habitats and a lack of food, moving into the urban sprawl for a chance at survival.
“Cities are a refuge for wild bees because of the pesticides and insecticides for honey bees,” Colla said. “Cities are pesticide free and buffer against climate change because people plant and water flowers, but in recent years, more people bring honey bee hives into cities and they compete with wild bees.”
Experts say replacing beehives in cities with gardens full of native plants, especially ones that blossom in April and sending pictures of bees in the wild to research projects are some of the ways people can help.
Callaghan says Canada should also look to Ireland’s model for protecting pollinators, which includes action plans for each sector of society and involves 68 organizations including the government.
“It’s almost too late,” Callaghan said. “We don’t have a good record of recovering species on list.”
Story re-posted from National Post. Written by Bobby Hristova
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