People passionate about nature

Will Native Bees be Outnumbered?

Q & A with a wildlife biologist and bee researcher

Melanie Dubois has a 4 year BSc with a focus in zoology, and a Master’s in Natural Resources Management. She is a certified wildlife biologist through The Wildlife Society. She has worked on issues along the wildlife/natural ecosystem interface with agriculture, and done testing of an assessment tool to assess the resources available to bees in agricultural areas and the beneficial management practices that farmers could put in place if there weren’t enough resources on their property.  This has grown into a larger program in Manitoba with multiple projects and collaboration with Dr. Jason Gibbs at the University of Manitoba, Nature Conservancy Canada, researchers in the US and many others.

Above: Bombus by AAFC Dubois

NM: A lot of people might not even be aware that the bees in hives are different than native Manitoba bees. What are the main differences between these bees?

MD: The honey bee is only one species among the 10,000 odd number of bees in the world, but is often the one that people are most familiar with. North America has over 4000 species of bee, Manitoba has over 300~ species of bees – this number is changing thanks to the fantastic work of Dr. Gibbs at U of M. Bees in very general terms tend to be fuzzy, have pollen collecting structures, and eat pollen and nectar (vegetarians). Native bees and honey bees share similar physical characteristics, the big difference are found in social behaviour and of course that ability to produce honey for human consumption. Most North American bees are ground nesting and solitary, though some tend to group up in areas of good habitat, even sharing the same entrance. Bumble bees are considered eusocial meaning that they live in a family group of a mother and daughters that work together to raise the young. These family groups range in size from 10 -100 depending on the availability of resources in the area. Native bees do not produce honey.

The honey bee (Apis mellifera) is a species which originated in Europe and is thought to have been brought to the ‘New World’ on Spanish ships in the 1500’s. Some view it as one of the first invasive alien species. It is a eusocial bee that lives in a hive with large numbers (50,000) and produce honey. Humans have been using honey bees for their sweet treats since 6000BC, if a cave painting in Spain is to be believed. In North America, Indigenous people had not experienced the far more aggressive honey bee prior to colonization and some records indicated they referred to honey bees as ‘white man’s fly’.

We have no way of knowing what the introduction of this species did to the native bee populations or the plants that they evolved with on this continent. There is a great deal of research looking at this issue now. 

NM: For someone who might argue that more bees are better regardless of species, why are native bees specifically important? What would happen if we lost them?

MD: A good way to think of the difference between honey bees and all the native bees is the distinction that in Canada honey bees are domestic livestock, much in the same way that cows or chickens are. They are regulated under various agricultural regulations and require intense husbandry from someone who has the training and expertise to care for them. In much of Canada they cannot survive our climate over the winter without human protection. In return the honey bee produces honey and pollination services in areas where the alteration of the landscape for agricultural purposes has reduced the existing population of native bees below the level needed to pollinate the large monocultures of crops. They are produced in huge numbers and transported to the areas that they are needed, much in the way that we produce livestock like cows or pigs and they are moved to different areas for grazing or to be raised in barns and produce meat for consumption. They are generalist pollinators, meaning that they go to a large number of different kind of flowers regardless of shape or colour.

Native bees can be viewed as the wild or natural components of our environment, like rain, sunshine, plants and wildlife. They are more than just deer or birds (if you were to contrast them to cows and chickens) as they are vital to the pollination of all insect-dependant plants. With over 20000 species of native bee worldwide there are generalists and specialists able to pollinate the vast variety of plants that they evolved with. Native bees have been shown to be more effective pollinators than domestic honey bees, they fly for longer periods of time (earlier and later in the day) and under more adverse conditions (colder, hotter, rainy). Crop yield and seed set is found to be significantly better when native bees are present regardless of the number of domestic honey bees.

In the North American context the domestic honey bee could not replace the ecological functions of the entire compliment of native bees. It is simply not possible for a single introduced species to be expected to do that. However, domestic honey bees have a strong and important role to play in commercial agricultural areas that lack healthy native bee population with large monocultures of insect dependant crops.

Above: Melissoides by AAFC Dubois

NM: Do honeybees (or an overabundance of them) pose a risk to native bees? If so, what is that risk?

MD: This is does not have a straightforward answer. The body of evidence seems to be showing that honey bees interfere with native bee’s access to food and tend to deplete food resources in competition with native bees. Domestic honey bees have a competitive advantage the same way most agricultural species have over wild species, they are grouped in huge numbers (for example in the millions in almond orchards), they are protected by humans from diseases and weather, they are placed in resource rich areas and a supplementally fed when natural resources are low.

Research is showing that native bees, especially bumble bees are harmed by the presence of domestic bees. It is shown in that the native bees will produce smaller less fit offspring and fewer of them. There is also spill over of pathogens, viruses and parasites to native populations. Domestic bees can be either treated or replaced, but native bees can’t be treated. There is also a shift in the plant community, harming specialist native bees that evolved with a particular plant community and can’t adapt, resulting in localised population crashes. More research will help fill in the gaps in knowledge but the evidence is clear enough to avoid placement of domestic bees in areas with valuable native bee populations. This could prove to be critical to bumble bee species at risk.

NM: What kind of role could more hives in the city of Winnipeg, for example, have on local bee populations?

MD: This would be unknown. Urban areas tend to be challenging for native bees to survive. Native bees need bare, undisturbed ground, flowers throughout the entire flight season and protection from pesticides – all tough to come by in cities. If you throw in the intense competition that domestic bees can bring, it may squeeze them out of some areas. For reason explain in the answer above.

Above: Photo by AAFC Dubois

NM: What kinds of regulations on hives currently exist, if any? (In the city or province)

MD: Please refer to my Canadian Laws essay available here. I took a domestic bee course through the University of Montana and this was a section in a large paper that I had to write on domestic bees.

NM: What kinds of regulations do you think should be in place?

MD: I think there is enough evidence to regulate the placement of domestic honey bees in natural landscapes. There are tools to assess landscape composition in agricultural areas that could guide apiary placement to reduce negative impacts on our native bees without compromising the commercial honey or pollination services industry.

NM: What are some ways people can help protect native bees in Manitoba?

MD: Fortunately there are many ways that people can help native bees in Manitoba. Think of the things that bees need: food, shelter and protection. Think flowers mud and mess! I am giving you permission to take a step back from gardening chores and tell everyone that what you are doing it absolutely critical to the bees.

Food: Grow native flowering plants in your yard. If you are buying bedding plants make sure that they are not sterile cultivars that don’t produce pollen. LEAVE YOUR DANDELIONS!!! They are often the only food for newly emerging bees in the spring – especially in the city. Think about planting spring and fall flowering native plants that can make all the difference at times with little for them to eat. Think about ditching your Kentucky blue grass lawn that does nothing but suck water and need to be cut. Think of some of the flowering alternatives that are out there that do not need cutting and look lovely. Lawns do nothing for bees, they can’t eat them and they are not ideal for nesting.

Shelter: leave some bare ground in your yard that you do not till/hoe/rototill. 85% of our bees are ground nesting bees, every time you till or hoe the bare ground in your garden or along your side walk you are destroying all the bees that you have worked so hard to feed with your flowers. You have probably seen bare patches with multiple small “ant hills”. Chances are those are bee holes – take some time this summer and sit and watch them, I bet you will be surprised to find tiny bees crawling in and out. Shelter can also come in the form of leaf litter in the fall and spring. LEAVE YOUR LEAVES!!!! They form a protective layer in the fall for the queen bees to hibernate in over the winter, and buffer them from the fluctuating temperatures in the spring. So let them stay in the fall and don’t rake them up in the spring until after Mother’s Day if you can stand it.

Some bees need woody stems and rotten trunks to nest in. Think about putting out bee hotels – just be prepared that you may end up with all kinds of insects along with the bees. In the fall, whatever you do – do not trim back your bushes or woody vines (i.e. willows, shrubs,  raspberry canes, Virginia creeper)!!! As you cut them down for burning or taking to the dump they are filled with next year’s pupating bees. In one cut you will undo all the hard work of the mother bees from this summer and kill next year’s spring crop of new bees. Pretty horrible image I know.

Protection: do not use insecticides whenever possible, be sure to ask your lawn care company what they are putting on your lawn, and be vigilant against the cosmetic use of neonicotinoids. This particular class of pesticide is under review by Health Canada and banned in parts of Europe. These pesticides have become an important tool in the production of food but alternative should be sought for using in city yards and gardens. Be sure to read your labels and ask questions when buying plants from gardening centres. Some major chains still sell plants that are pre-treated with neonics. Local garden centres would be able to tell you what their plants have been grown with. I did some looking around last spring and found it almost impossible to find out information on the large chain stores but I did find some:

• Home Depot – all labelled and committed to 95% neonic free
• Rona – will have a list available at the location, and committed to 95% neonic free
• WalMart – unknown and unable to provide that information other than to indicate it would depend on the supplier for that particular location
• Canadian Tire & Loblaws – unknown but were considering labelling

What to look for on a bedding plant label – any wording that says it is protected against aphids, white flies, beetles, and mealy bugs. What the label doesn’t say is that the pollen and nectar is also then poisonous to bees.
I will reiterate to people here that protection also means leaving your garden and lawn a bit messy. Leave your leaves and dandelions – put your feet up, ignore the looks from the neighbours knowing you are doing all you can to help the bees.

Above: Bombus on thistle by AAFC Dubois

NM: What is a good resource for people who might want more info about this? (website or otherwise)

MD: Fortunately there is an abundance of great resources.

Pollination Canada

Books – there are countless books but these four are the very cream of the crop that I would not be without. They are all very accessible (i.e. not filled with dry scientific jargon) with fantastic pictures. All except the one by Heather Holm can be bought at McNally Robinson.

• Bees: An Identification and Native Plant Forage Guide by Heather Holm
• The Bees in Your Backyard by Joseph S. Wilson and Olivia Messinger Carril
• Attracting Native Pollinators by The Xerces Society
• Bumble Bees of North America by Paul Williams, Robbin Thorp, Leif Richardson and Sheila Colla

• USGSBIML: an online museum for bees, run by Sam Droege; US Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab. This Instagram account single handedly makes up for all of the Kardashian accounts put together.

NM: Is there anything else you think is important to mention?

MD: Key things for people to know, honey bees were introduced and are the only bee that lives in hives and makes honey, native bees are single moms that mostly live in the ground and come in the most fascinating array of shapes, colour, sizes and degree of fuzziness.

Most bees don’t want to sting you, many species don’t even have stingers – if they land on you they have mistaken you for a flower, it should make your day. Honey bees are the most aggressive, there is a good chance they will sting you, and wasps will sting you just for fun.