The plight of the bumble bee

by John Davidson

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Tricoloured Bumblebee at work in the FWG’s Butterfly Meadow

Punch “bees” into your search engine and, within seconds, you’ll get a screenful of headlines, something like this:

Why are bees dying?
Plant flowers to help declining bee populations
Could pesticides be limiting the ability of bees to reproduce?

We are all aware of the crucial role bees and other pollinators play in the plant world. And we are growing aware of the perils these species face. As alarm bells ring over declining bee populations worldwide, scientists and environmentalists are attempting to answer the question, why?

Bumble Bee Watch

This summer (2016), the Fletcher Wildlife Garden became one of the focal points for Bumble Bee Watch (bumblebeewatch.org), a continent-wide effort to gather data on and better understand the health of bumble bee populations. During July and August, representatives from Friends of Earth Canada, a partner in the program, held several presentations at FWG. Each included a talk, a documentary film, a question and answer session, and finally an on-the-land hunt for bumble bees.

The program encouraged “citizen scientists” to look for bumble bees and upload data on their findings to their website, including date and time of the sighting, location, species identification, and a photograph.

Why Fletcher Wildlife Garden? Because, “it’s a gem!”

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Beatrice Olivastri, chief executive officer, Friends of the Earth, Canada.

Beatrice Olivastri, CEO of Friends of the Earth, Canada, said that when her organization was trying to sort out how to involve people in Ottawa, “It was very obvious that we wanted to work with the people from Fletcher Wildlife Garden, the volunteers and the people who do interpretation.

“I think this garden is an amazing gem in Ottawa. I don’t know if everyone in Ottawa is aware of it: if they aren’t they should be! Friends of the Earth is so happy to have been able to work with the Fletcher Wildlife Garden folks. I hope we’ll be able to do some good things together and hope we can attract more volunteers to help out with all of the good things Fletcher Wildlife Garden is doing for Ottawa and for nature.”

I tried out the Bumble Bee Watch ID program on the web several times and found it quite easy to use, although, even with tips and graphic aids on the site, it was tricky for this unpracticed eye to identify the precise species among the 48 that inhabit North America. Luckily, the uploaded photo was there to allow scientists with Bumble Bee Watch to confirm the IDs.

Although the Friends of the Earth count ended on August 15, Bumble Bee Watch is ongoing and you can submit your photos and data any time.

We know more about honey bees that the wild native species

Ms Olivastri visited Fletcher Wildlife Garden on June 26 to explain the program.

“Many people have become concerned about bees, typically honey bees, and their exposure to a particular kind of pesticides, called neonicotinoids. And while honey bees have a voice —the beekeepers, and their associations — we don’t know nearly enough about how wild bees are doing.

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David van Olst (grey tee shirt) of Friends of the Earth, leading a Bumble Bee Watch bee identification field trip at the FWG.

“We do know that they are stressed out by climate change. We do know that they are negatively impacted by habitat loss through urban development or land converted to commodity crops, such as corn and soy and canola. And we know they are affected by diseases, sometimes shared from honey bees or even from domestic bumble bees which are used in greenhouse operations and which sometimes escape.

“We know that there is a decline.

“We know that there are specific wild bees, like the Rusty-patched Bumble Bee that was remarkably common the 70s in Southern Ontario, Manitoba, and Quebec, and is completely gone now in Canada. It is listed as endangered, and was last seen in Canada in 2009, around Grand Bend, Ontario.

“Six other species in 2016 have been listed for protection under the federal Species at Risk Act.

“So, something is happening.”

Let it bee

Ms Olivastri said, “What we are trying to do at Friends of Earth is, first of all, inform people about how remarkable and important wild native bees are.

“By helping us count them, by helping us take pictures and recording them on Bumble Bee Watch, it will help scientists learn more about these threats, and what we can do differently to help us protect these bees,” she said.

How you can help in your own backyard

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Even if you missed the four Friends of Earth presentations at the FWG this summer, you’re still in luck. Neil Losin and Morgan Heim’s award winning documentary film A Ghost in the Making: Searching for the Rusty-patched Bumble Bee, that was part of the presentations, has been posted on line. You can watch it here.

Ms Olivastri stressed that there are many things you can do, if you have a back yard or garden, to make a habitat that helps support wild bumble bees.

“The best thing you can do to help save the bees,” she said, “is in your own back yard. Let it be: leave your yard more natural to support the wild bee populations.”

To learn more about how to create a “Bee and Bee” accommodation in your own backyard, see the helpful guide Friends of the Earth have provided online.

More about the plight of the bumble bee

Editor’s note: John Davidson had a chance to talk further with some of our Friends of the Earth colleagues during fieldwork at the FWG and made this excellent video.

The Plight of the Bumble Bee from John Davidson on Vimeo.

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