I have a confession to make; I’m an insect geek.
And when it comes to social insects like bees and ants I’m even geekier than usual.
So when I learned that the Learning Garden at the University of Ottawa was holding a free workshop on insect identification, I jumped at the chance to learn more.
One of the coolest things we learned was how to tell the difference between flies and bees. You would think this would be easy, right? Bees are fuzzy with yellow and black stripes. Flies are black and shiny.
In fact, it isn’t that simple! Many of the native bee species in Canada look like tiny flies. Also, many fly species are camouflaged to look like bees so predators won’t mess with them. So how do you tell them apart? Well, look at the antennae. In most cases, flies have short, stubby antennae and bees have long, languorous ones.
Armed with this information, we stepped out into the University’s learning garden to find some insects. Now that I knew what I was looking for, I was amazed to see how many bees there were! They came in all shapes and sizes, from 2mm to 2cm. They also came in an exciting palette of colours, from black to grey to bright green! Even cooler, all these bees were native to Canada!
I first learned about native bees while writing an essay on the possible causes of the major honey bee deaths in North America. I learned that these unsung-heros do a great job of pollinating farmers crops for free! It’s sad that we aren’t taught more about them in school. So I did some reading, and here’s what I found out.
1. Everything you’ve been told about bees is a lie
Okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration. It’s more like ‘everything you’ve been told about bees only applies to honey bees’.
Out of 19,000 bee species worldwide, most museums, science centres, schools and documentaries only talk about one: the European Honey bee. You know, the queen with thousands of female workers, the yellow and black-striped workers bringing back nectar and pollen to feed the larvae, the waggle dance to communicate where flowers are located. You’ve heard it all before.
And there’s a good reason to talk about them. European honey bees are commercially valuable. They were domesticated a long time ago to produce honey and pollinate crops. Without pollination, we wouldn’t have fruits like apples, tomatoes, cherries, pumpkins, strawberries or blueberries. In fact, we need pollinators for 1 out of every 3 mouthfuls of food we eat!
The European honeybee is so essential to agriculture that European settlers brought them to Canada. The European Honey bee is now a mainstay of the Canadian economy. However, there were bees in Canada already, around 730 species to be exact! And even though we don’t talk about them very much, they’re still here! For some crops, like blueberries, native bees are even better pollinators than honey bees.
2. They came from underground
Bees weren’t always cute and cuddly pollen-eaters. They used to eat meat! Yep, bees evolved from predatory digger wasps, which still exist today.
Why this drastic change from munching on other insects to sipping nectar? Well, it had everything to do with the arrival of flowering plants. Believe it or not, flowers didn’t exist until the Cretaceous period (1465-65 million years ago). This means that dinosaurs pre-date flowers. Can you imagine a world without flowers? Weird, huh? The evolution of flowers created a whole new food source, and bees, wasps, butterflies and moths evolved to eat it up. Maybe sipping nectar was easier than catching live prey!
3. All by myself…
Considering that honey bees are the poster child of the social insect, I was surprised to learn that most native bees in North America not social at all. They live by themselves, and are called solitary bees. Each female builds her own nest, lays her own eggs, and collects all her own pollen and nectar. Who needs hundreds of sisters when you can be independent?
What does a solitary bee’s life cycle look like? A female finds a male to mate with, then digs or finds a burrow to lay eggs in. She collects a huge ball of nectar and pollen, then lays an egg on top of it. When the egg hatches, the larvae feeds on the pollen, and in the fall becomes an adult. The adults hibernate through the winter to emerge in the spring.
4. Hives? No thanks.
Most solitary bees don’t live in fancy hives, but in holes in the ground. Yep, kind of like hobbits. 90% of native bee species lay their eggs in burrows in the ground.
Osima bees have by far the cutest homes. They like to nest in tiny spaces including snail shells, keyholes and even locks!
5. Busy bee? No, lazy bee.
Some bee species trick someone else into doing all the work for them. They lay their eggs in the nests of other bees, and avoid the work of collecting pollen and making a nest. This behaviour is called cleptoparastisitm. So much for busy bees!
6. Bumbling around
The fuzzy Bumble bee is indigenous to Canada. It’s the only bee that sticks around to feed its growing larvae. All other native bees hightail it out of there once the eggs are laid. In the wild, bumble bees also nest in the ground, but usually let someone else do the work. Holes in trees or abandoned rodent dens make a cozy nest. However, domesticated honey bees are managed using hives.
7. Picky, picky
Some Canadian bees are picky eaters. They only collect nectar and pollen from one kind of flower. They aren’t doing this to be difficult. They’re doing it because they have evolved to be perfectly suited to that flower. For example, the bee Melissodes desponsa only visits thistles. Ecologists call picky eaters ‘specialists’. Most Canadian bees are ‘generalists’ which means they can get food from many different kinds of flowers.
8. The extinction factor
Because of their sensitivity to environmental factors, some bee species are prone to extinction. This is especially true for specialists that only feed on one type of flower. If the flower disappears, they are in trouble. And it’s not just climate change that is causing their food to disappear. Many of the flowers we grow in our gardens come from Europe, and most native bees can’t use them for food.In addition, chemical pesticides meant for pesky insect will also kill bees.
Okay, enough doom and gloom. What can you do to help native bees? You can give them food by planting native wildflowers, or by waiting to mow those pesky ‘weeds’ until after they have flowered. You can give them places to live, by leaving bare patches of ground in your garden. You can even install woodblocks with holes drilled into them. These are called trap-nests, and will attract bees that like to live in pre-existing holes.
Want to learn more? Check out this user-friendly field guide to native pollinators by the David Suzuki Foundation. The photos are incredible!
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Also, if you haven’t checked out my Art page, you might like it.