For the Love of Wild Bees

Lookout Observers Participate in Alberta Native Bee Study

By Trina Moyles

Lookout observers are the eyes and ears of the forests in Alberta.

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Not only do we observe the weather and horizon for hints of smoke, but we also have the unique opportunity to help gather wildlife data for researchers. This summer, myself, along with a number of other lookout observers in Alberta, have been participating in a native bee identification and monitoring study, in collaboration with the Alberta Native Bee Council (ANBC) and researchers at the University of Calgary.

“When I saw the map of the lookout towers for the first time, in my head, I thought, oh my goodness, this is the perfect sampling distribution,” says Megan Evans, president of the ANBC.

Evans and her colleague, Alexandria Farmer, recently co-founded the ANBC to promote the conservation of native bees through research, monitoring, advocating and public education.

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“There’s a huge gap in [research] data on native bees,” explains Evans, who approached Alberta Agriculture and Forestry to partner on the study, which aims to build a population inventory on native bees in the province. According to the Canadian government’s “status of species” report, there are 321 species of wild bees in Alberta. Evans says that number could be closer to 380.

“There are probably close to 60 species that we haven’t even recorded yet. We think through this project, with this great provincial coverage, it’s very likely that we’ll find these species.”

The ANBC recently partnered with the Alberta Wildfire detection program, who agreed to help distribute bee sampling kits to strategically placed lookouts throughout the forest areas.

“Detection is a vital part of wildfire operations,” says Terry Jessiman, Forest Area Manager for the High Level Forest Area. “The lookout observers collect vital information used in the suppression of wildfires, but they also take part in the collection of research-based studies, such as the bee study. This information plays an important role in the health and success of Alberta’s forests.”

There are 127 fire towers strategically situated in the southern grasslands, into the foothills and alpine regions, and up to the northern boreal forests. Together, we cover a massive tract of geography in Alberta.

“The ultimate goal of this study,” says Evans, “is to determine what species are where and how the populations are doing. We’re also looking at how weather patterns impact bees, and in the long-run, how will climate change affect bee populations.”

My fire tower is located in northwestern Alberta. In late June, I set out a simple bee trap, a yellow plastic container with a blue funnel top. I filled the container one-third full with a non-toxic substance, a bee attractant, and placed the trap beside my vegetable garden, near a thick stand of fireweed, purple lupins, yarrow, and yellow hawkweed.

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Every two weeks, I peer down into the trap to spy a number of bees floating atop the solution. I pour the solution through a strainer, collect the bees, and put them into small plastic sampling bags with the collection date. Additionally, I record the diversity of wildflowers in bloom around my tower, thousands of flowers from wild raspberry to golden rod to purple aster. Anecdotally, I see a plethora of bumblebees working the flowers, their legs heavy with orange pollen. On a sunny day without wind, I can occasionally hear their collective hum from 100 feet up in the sky.

Native bees come in all shapes, sizes, and colours, but many bees aren’t “obvious” like bumblebees. Some are very dull, black and relatively hairless, while others are red, blue, and striped. Most native bees live underground, or in hollowed out wood. Evans says there’s tremendous bee diversity in the boreal. Wild bees have evolved with the forest, adapting to pollinate particular plants.

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“In forested ecosystems, bee biodiversity is incredibly important. They create forage and habitat for wildlife. After a fire, bees pollinate the early successional flowers and shrubs,” explains Evans. “Some of the bees have short tongues, some long tongues; many have adapted to pollinate certain plants. A short-tongued bee, for example, can’t drink nectar from a long corolla plant.”

At the end of the wildfire season, the bees I’ve collected will find their way to the University of Calgary, where researchers will wash, blow dry (using hair dryers), and identify (under the microscope) the bee species. The ANBC plans to host a series of “Work Bees” to invite the public to help with the project. The goal is to engage Albertans to learn more about native bee conservation.

“Many people know the difference between chickens and wild birds,” says Evans. “But they don’t know the difference between honeybees and wild bees.”

Many Albertans aren’t aware that European honeybees are not native to Alberta, although forty percent of the country’s honeybees are in Alberta – and that number is growing. Honeybees are aggressive foragers, typically used to pollinate croplands, but they also compete for forage with native species in forests, meadows, and wild habitats.

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“We know that one honeybee colony in one year consumes the same amount of food that can sustain 100,000 native solitary bees,” explains Evans. “We need to figure out how many native bees there are and where, and their thresholds in different ecosystems. We need to ensure that we’re leaving enough forage for our wild bees.”

The ANBC and researchers are grateful for the partnership of lookout observers participating in the study. They’re hopeful to repeat the population inventory every three to five years, so they can monitor the species health, and if necessary, advocate for their protection.

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