Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The Bumblebee, the Silent Rock Star of The Natural World

When I was a child, my favourite little creature was the bumblebee. Its fat, fuzzy body and dirigible-like flight—legs bulging with pollen—and hypnotic buzz mesmerized. Never mind that my first sting was from a bumblebee when I was four years old. It was my fault and I knew it; I’d tried to touch its furry body. Everything about them was sweet and wondrous. How they buzzed from flower to flower and then crawled about to position themselves to take the pollen. I used to watch them for stretches of time. I pushed myself close until my nose was inches away. I studied their fuzzy striped body, how it moved in a kind of fat elegance. Pollen covered their bodies like lint. Sometimes their legs bulged yellow or orange with pollen. When they took flight in a sudden buzz, they seemed to defy gravity. They ascended with wings that whirred into invisibility.

Why Bees Are So Cool

Bees pollinate 71 of the 100 crops that provide 90% of our food. Most of this pollination is carried out by wild, native bees, including bumblebees. Bumblebees pollinate many fruits and vegetables, such as tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers. Their fat and fuzzy bodies make them ideally suited for cool spring weather, according to Shiela Colla, environmental professor at York University. “Some of them come out early spring, some of the species come out late in fall, so you can’t just knock out a few species because then there are gaps in what will get pollinated. All bees are important pollinators,” says Colla.

The Problem…

There’s been a major decline in insect pollinators, including bees and butterflies. Much of this decline can be directly linked to neonicotinoides—a nasty nicotine-like pesticide group that impacts a bumblebee queen’s ability to feed and reproduce, according to Nigel Raine and other researchers at Guelph University, who published their study in the biological research journal of the London-based Royal Society. Along with habitat destruction, and climate change related disease, pesticides threaten the bumblebee.

The Rusty Patched Bumblebee—Near extinction

The rusty patched bumblebee (Bombus affinis) was once one of the most common wild bees in Canada in the 1970s. It was the fourth most common bumblebee species out of 14 in Ontario. I remember seeing many of them in the Eastern Townships of Quebec, where I grew up. It was only spotted twice in the past 10 years. This species is endangered in Canada and critically endangered globally (IUCN assessment). This hard-working species of bumblebee is now on the brink of extinction. Scientists suggest that at the local level pesticide use and habitat loss are the key impacts to this beautiful bee.

Recommended Recovery Actions

The Ontario Recovery Strategy for rusty-patched bumble bee calls for a number of conservation measures, including restoring habitat, continuing to search for wild rusty-patched bumble bees at their historic sites and, if any queens can be located, establishing a conservation breeding program. The Canadian government is phasing out the agricultural use of on neonic, imidacloprid, which was found in groundwater in harmful concentrations to aquatic insects. Others include thiamethoxam and a widely used neonic clothianidin. Ontario is also phasing out the blanket useof neonics on corn for grain and soybean crops. The European Union is reportedly set to impose a wider ban this year on neonics.

Cool Facts About Bees

  • Bees can detect scent, shape, pattern and colour (in the visible and ultraviolet range) and have precise olfactory receptors
  • Bees can recognize individual faces using feature recognition
  • Bees can detect the electric fields that flowers emit
  • Bumblebees use their positive charge (flowers are slightly negatively charged) due to friction of their body parts in the air to help stick the pollen grains to their legs
  • Bees use a sophisticated sense of navigation to fly the shortest route possible between flowers; they use the sun as a compass and navigate by polarized light
  • Bees use a unique stroke pattern in their wings to achieve flight that uses the creation of a vortex
  • Bees use a very efficient storage for their honey: the hexagonal shape
  • Pollen, which the bee collects on its hind legs, is a source of protein for the hive and is needed to feed the baby bees to help them grow
  • When bees change jobs, they change their brain chemistry
  • Bees have personalities
  • Honeybees communicate with infrasound (very low frequency)
  • The hive, when it is at home and almost complete in numbers, acts like a warm-bodied animal

What We Can Do

  • Create a Pollinator-friendly garden! Help reverse the loss of native pollinator habitat on your property by protecting or planting native flowering plants.  Aim to have a diversity of plants that flower from spring through fall. Pollination Guelph has curated an excellent list of resources to get you started.
  • Build a bee nest out of a recycled milk carton.
  • Don’t remove colonies of native bees on your property.  Bumble bees are quite docile when undisturbed and usually will only sting when trapped.
  • Support organic agriculture.
  • Take photos of any bumble bees you see in North America and submit them to This will help us locate rare bumble bees and learn more about all Canadian bumble bees.
  • Choose alternatives to pesticides or reduce the amount of chemicals you use.
  • Shop organic
  • Contact your local government office and let them know that you support responsible land use planning that protects and connects natural areas and endangered species habitat
  • Report sightings of rare species to your provincial/territorial Conservation Data Centre
  • Support Wildlife Preservation Canada.

Make your own milk-carton bee nest.

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit for the latest on her books. Nina’s recent book is the bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” (Mincione Edizioni, Rome). Her latest “Water Is…” is currently an Amazon Bestseller and NY Times ‘year in reading’ choice of Margaret Atwood.

1 comment:

Nina Munteanu said...

As an incredible post script to this, the European Union has just voted to ban bee-killing pesticides. Thanks to Avaaz who served as a catalyst of this outcome, this marks a GLOBAL TIPPING POINT TO SAVE THE BEES. It bans the worlds most common insecticides, pressing industry to develop a whole new model of non-toxic agriculture.

NOW, we have to do this in Canada and the U.S. and remaining parts of the world.