For most, the holidays are a time of joy, love, and laughter, but for many, the holidays can also be a reminder of loss, and a time of heartache. While the Bumble Bee Recovery team prepares for the holidays by sending out appreciation packages with goodies for our many volunteer citizen scientists, we are reminded that there are a number of reasons why our volunteers get involved in our recovery and conservation programs, and heartache can be one of them. In the wake of the giving season, we wanted to share one of our favourite stories, from one of our most dedicated volunteers—Sarah Litterick. Sarah’s 10 Reasons Why I Love Bumble Bee Surveys is a heartfelt look at how our connection to nature and its wonders can have incredible healing powers.

10 Reasons Why I Love Bumble Bee Surveys

By Sarah Litterick

1. The Healing Effects of Partnership

Back in 2015 when Wildlife Preservation Canada’s bumble bee surveys started at Pinery Provincial Park, I had just come off a year of losing both my parents. As the executrix of their estates, I was worn out to say the least and was ready to focus some of my mental and emotional energy somewhere that didn’t include wills and last wishes. Paperwork can, if you let it, take the place of grieving and I was numb. I had heard about the bumble bee surveys from the Natural Heritage Education staff at Pinery and was ready for an adventure… anything to shift my focus elsewhere.

When June rolled around, and the orientation came, I was eager to get out on the trail… alone. I didn’t particularly want to survey with anyone else that first year.  I didn’t trust how emotionally raw I was. Good safety protocol dictated otherwise so I was partnered up with strangers. In the end I met four amazing people—Anne, Dawn, Bev, & Brett—who ended up being fantastic survey partners each in their own way. As we traipsed around the park, bumbling with clipboards, nets, and cameras we found some bumble bees and I began to let go of some of my grief. I started to fall in love with the trail again. I started to fall in love with these fuzzy, little beings I had always been afraid off. I also began to see the power in doing something worthwhile with like-minded people.

One of Sarah’s survey partners, and friend, Dawn Stubbs. Photo © Sarah Litterick

2. The Chance to Push Past Fear

Bugs, bees, spiders, the lot, have always been a source of terror for me. Who knows why we have these fears, but I can’t remember a time I wasn’t afraid of them. So why the heck would anybody in their right mind want to go places where all these critters thrive? I honestly don’t have the answer for that one. I just jumped in with both feet and trusted that my survey partners wouldn’t post a YouTube video of me screaming and running wildly away from a survey site if I was “attacked”.

As anyone who has surveyed knows, bumble bees rarely want to pose for you on their host flowers—hence the nets. Anne, my first survey partner, was fearless when it came to capturing bumble bees with her net. Following her lead, I reluctantly learned to corral these tiny creatures into vials by the end of the first day. Somehow, seeing them up close, seeing them at a macro level, helped dampen my fear. Now instead of just stingers, they had faces, and beards, and mohawks, and fur coats and big, beautiful eyes. I was hooked.

Here’s Sarah with a bumble bee. Her newly-found love of getting up close and personal with these incredible insects is something Sarah never imagined she’d develop. Photo © Sarah Litterick

3. The Meeting of Other Creatures

While most of the focus when we survey is on bumble bees, as surveyors we always find other amazing creatures out in the field. Some of the sighting highlights of my four years surveying at Pinery: eastern hognose snakes, smooth green snakes, garter snakes, water snakes (OK, I like snakes), five-lined skinks, bald eagles, belted kingfishers, various woodpeckers, songbirds and shorebirds, great blue herons, red-tailed hawks, white-tailed deer, various butterflies, hummingbird clearwing moths, a praying mantis, robber flies, cicada killer wasps, just to name a few. Each, in their own way, bringing wonder, joy and the occasional startle upon our meeting.

4. A Reason to Exercise

Yes, I need one. I am usually content to sit which has added pounds to my body and probably subtracted years off my life—well at least up until this point. Hunting bumble bees can be long, hot, physically demanding work. Of course, there is the thrill of capture and release, but there is also the reward of moving your body through beautiful places. There is squatting, plodding through long vegetation, hiking up and down hills, walking long and short distances, risking life and limb (or at least a dip in the channel) while traversing fallen logs and generally letting the sun do its miraculous work of creating vitamin D. The whole experience is good for body, soul and mind.

5. An Amazing Way to Learn About Biodiversity

Pinery has always been a sacred place for me. As a young child my parents would bring my brothers and me to the beach. The beach—that wonderful Lake Huron shoreline that is never the same way twice. For some reason though, that is all I ever knew of Pinery. The beach and the long and winding road bejeweled with black-eyed Susan’s and other wildflowers I couldn’t name. Although I started hiking the trails at Pinery in 2014, surveying opened my eyes to how much more there was to this amazing park. The trails and water sources were teaming with life—trees, plants, fungi, fish, birds, insects, mammals and all the unseen things that drew these flora and fauna together. Forests, swamps, dunes, the shoreline, all in concert with each other, have their own way of showing off.

The biodiversity maintained at Pinery Provincial Park is unparalleled in the area. Sarah loves getting shots of everything she comes across, like these caterpillars – a milkweed tussock moth caterpillar on the left and a Monarch caterpillar on the right! Photo © Sarah Litterick

6. A Path to Life-Long Learning

It’s inevitable! You are going to learn something about Nature when you do any kind of citizen science project. Back in 2015, I started doing bumble bee surveys for fun. I never realized just how much I would learn. Who knew there were roughly 45 species of bumble bee in Canada and just over 20 in Ontario? And plants, what were the plants they liked to feed on? And temperature… and cloud cover—why were these things important in the whole recording process? As I moved through the park and asked questions, read and researched, I began to piece little bits of knowledge together into a more focused picture of relationships. Although I am just starting to scratch the surface of the science of ecology, my enthusiasm to learn more has definitely grown—so much so that I am currently working my way towards going back to school to earn a degree in Wildlife Biology and Conservation.

Sarah has no problem sharing her data collection with her subjects! Here’s one of the bumble bees that she collected and recorded checking to make sure she’s getting everything just right! Photo © Sarah Litterick

7. A Way to Give Back

Sometimes when we are going through something difficult, such as grief, it’s best to keep moving. It’s good to get out of your own head and focus on someone or something else. In the first survey year, the more I chased bees and spent time in nature, the more my grief resolved and found a place to rest. I am good now. I have left the sorrow out on the trail and picked up a love of bumble bees, ecology, and conservation. With each passing survey season, I learn more and more about the important work that Wildlife Preservation Canada is doing, and I am so proud and feel honoured that I get to be a part of it.

Here’s Trish, Sarah’s survey partner, in a successful, hands-on bumble bee rescue! Photo © Sarah Litterick

8. The Power of Wonder

We underestimate the power of spending quality time with Mother Nature. As we grow up, if we are not careful, and most of us aren’t, we lose our sense of wonder. As children, flowers and animals are seen as friends, but as we age the lustre of these relationships dulls for a lot of us. When you stare into a bumble bee’s eyes for the first, or second, or even the hundredth time, a little piece of wonder begins to emerge. “What’s going on behind those eyes?”, you will begin to ask. And then you will start to see that all that surrounds you in that moment is reflected in those shiny, black orbs, and maybe like me, you will be smitten, and wonder will return.

9. The Honing of Skills

As long as I can remember, I have always loved photography. Bumble bee surveys was just another chance to play with the magic of light and colour. Add the thrill of the hunt and an interesting subject and it’s a perfect fusion of art and science. Although I started out shooting with a camera, I have since “graduated” (or not, if you’re a purest) to shooting with my iPhone. It’s just easier for me when juggling notebooks, pens, nets, vials, and all that goes with working in the field. My shots aren’t always the best, but I have fun and they serve the purpose for species identification. I have become somewhat skilled at smartphone photography and when I do capture those print-worthy shots, I am left with a gift that I can hang on my wall, share with a friend or put in my scrapbook… each a reminder of a moment I encountered wonder.

Here is Sarah’s favourite 2018 bumble bee survey photo. For all you non-believers, here’s proof that iPhones can certainly take beautiful pictures! Photo © Sarah Litterick

10. The Making of a Life-Long Friend

Trish—my now permanent survey partner—has become one of my best friends. I met her while participating in another citizen science project—Christmas Bird Count 2015. We started the day looking for owls at 6 a.m. and I didn’t even know what she looked like for the first couple of hours until the sun came up. Over the following spring we saw each other at other Pinery events and I encouraged her to join in on bumble bee surveys. We became fast friends and have been survey partners ever since. Trish-Therapy, is what I call it now—spending quality time with my kindred spirit out on the trails. She has been a sounding board, a source of deep joy and laughter, and a balm to my soul as we have hiked many a mile on the trails and along the beach.  She understands the deep love and connection I have for Pinery and for bumble bees. She’s also pretty great at finding beach glass.

Here are Sarah (left) and Trish (right) on the beach at Pinery Provincial Park, Grand Bend, Ontario. Photo © Sarah Litterick

Our Bumble Bee Recovery team is forever indebted to our amazing volunteers like Sarah and her survey partner Trish. We feel incredibly lucky to be able to gain perspectives into their lives as they gain some perspective into ours and into those of Earth’s bumble bees.

Happy Holidays!

– Bumble Bee Recovery Team