Published in thespec.com, June 11 2019
So you want to help save the bees? That's great, but first of all, you'll need to get to know your bees.
From a conservation perspective, it's the wild bees as opposed to managed bees that we need to be focusing on. As plant pollinators, they are the ones that do most of the heavy lifting, yet they get the least attention.
Dr. Sheila Colla, a conservation biologist at York University, states many people believe honeybees are wild bees. They are not. Honeybees are for honey production and pollination of some crops, they are not even native to North America. Sheila decries the lack of knowledge about native bees of which Ontario has over 350 species, most of them ground nesters, saying, "even the most avid naturalist groups don't know about the diversity of our wild bees."
Why the confusion about the kinds of bees in need of our help?
Many people became more concerned when beekeepers called for support to fight neonicotinoids (insecticides), "but they made it seem like this was the biggest threat, when in fact it is one of many," Sheila says.
According to Sheila, pathogens from managed bees and diseases spillover are the biggest threat to wild bumblebees, the wild bees which are the best studied. "Disease tends to increase because we manage bees in densities higher than they would be found in nature."
As an example, Sheila points to the bat population that contracted 'white nose syndrome.' "Over 90 per cent were impacted because when an animal is introduced to a disease they were never exposed to before, it can be catastrophic."
Sheila argues that planting good quality habitat that provides both spring and fall flowers is one of the most significant things we can do.
We need to beware of misconceptions — even the bee condo, while useful for education purposes is not so innocent a conservation tool. Research by Scott MacIvor's lab shows that bee condos are more parasitized, and fungus issues occur frequently.
For Sheila, "it comes down to a western way of thinking that we can manage the environment and make it work the way we want to. This highlights to me it's one knowledge system we are still applying."
Sheila reflects on this issue. With the urban food movement, some people argue that they are anti-establishment, but how truly informed are they about other types of knowledge? She speaks to a critical need to coproduce knowledge about land and food.
But isn't urban beekeeping good for community gardens, some may ask?
Sheila offers the Thorncliffe Community Garden in Toronto as an example of where there are no honey bee hives, and yet the gardens are thriving; "so to argue that we need to have urban beekeepers for community is not true."
As well, for Sheila, keeping pet bees is also a time thing, "it's a privileged activity, not everyone can do it because it takes time and money." Good communities of native bees provide free pollination services, which are critical for those who are unable to keep bees. She's blunt about the impacts of honey bees competing with wild bees for food: "one apiary (30 hives) takes the same amount of pollen as would three million wild, solitary bees. The point is, honey bees are not neutral animals."
Currently, Sheila has a Masters' student exploring further the area of land honey bee hives need for honey production.
For other ways people can help with this critical conservation issue is by participating in citizen science programs that help scientists, like BumbleBeeWatch and eButterfly.
Educate yourself. In Toronto, Sheila and others have been working with the city to put up educational signs in areas that have bee activity to let people know these are native bees that won't bother people.
Sheila suggests that rather than trying to conquer our environment, we might develop an attitude of just being in it. "We should take a step back and observe," she says, "and learn that we can't always manage the environment."
Sheila recently received news that she and her colleague Lisa Myers were successful in receiving a federal government research grant for a two-year project with partners including Indigenous artists, that will explore the connections between insects, plants, food, culture, and land.
The project involves Indigenous art history, pollinator gardens as art installations, community-based practice and knowledge sharing, citizen science and plant-pollinator network analysis. The Hamilton Pollinator Paradise Project will be closely following Sheila's exciting work in the months to come.
Beatrice Ekoko is a Project Manager with Environment Hamilton. @EnvHamilton