When you hear someone describing an area that is teeming with biodiversity, what do you think of? If you’re like most, you’re transported to a beautiful tropical paradise, hidden amid lush rainforest, with the call of an exotic bird, or two, in the background. Now, what if we told you that an ecosystem that boasts high native bee diversity actually looks more like this?

Southern Alberta prairie landscape. © Ashton Sturm

Are you surprised? Most people are! Contrary to popular belief, the hotter and drier regions of Canada, like Alberta’s prairie systems, are a bee diversity hotspot! Over 300 native bees call the Canadian Prairies home.

A native sweat bee in the genus Lasioglossum on native prairie crocus (Anemone patens). Photo © S. Johnson

 

 

But, what is it about these ecosystems that allow them to support such high levels of diversity?

Approximately 70% of all bee species nest underground, including many at-risk bumble bees. Our native grasslands can provide a sort of safe haven for bumble bees because they have relatively low soil disturbance compared to environments that are more actively used by humans. For example, croplands require tilling and seeding to produce crops, and many urban areas experience regular mowing and aerating of soils for maintenance, all of which are practices that can disturb bumble bees, and regularly destroy their nests.

There are several elements that go into assessing habitats for their ability to support different species, and one of the Bumble Bee Recovery team’s research objectives is to learn more about bumble bee nesting ecology—an understudied element of bumble bee biology, and undoubtedly an important factor in determining the ability of an ecosystem to support healthy bumble bee populations.

A bumble bee colony nesting in one of WPC’s nest boxes at Glenbow Ranch Provincial Park. Photo © A. Farmer

The availability of suitable nesting sites is not the only factor we need to consider when we’re looking at how well an ecosystem can support healthy bumble bee populations. Bumble bees need two main food resources—nectar, as a sugar resource, and pollen for protein; both of which they get from flowering plants. Worker bumble bees will forage for, and collect, nectar and pollen to provision for their queen and their growing colony. Another way our grasslands support bumble bees is by offering a continuous supply of floral resources, most of which are native plants that, in turn, depend on native pollinators in order to successfully reproduce. Bumble bees are especially great pollinators for a number of reasons. Our native plant communities depend on bumble bees because they have co-evolved alongside them (and other native bee species), and some of these native plants have evolved to require specialized techniques in order to be pollinated. Buzz pollination is one of these techniques, and while only some bee species can buzz-pollinate, bumble bees are especially good at it! Bumble bees, for the most part, are also generalist foragers meaning that they will help pollinate a wide variety of flowers, and they are big and hairy which definitely helps them pick up more pollen and spread it around! The grasslands themselves are home to a wide range of flowering plants, and these plants provide resources for bees from early spring to late fall, which is essential for bees to survive the season.

A Nevada bumble bee (Bombus nevadensis) queen flying away after foraging on some wild bergamot, also known as bee balm (Monarda fisulosa). Photo © S. Johnson

So, it’s clear that grasslands are super important for maintaining healthy bee populations, and this is one of the many reasons why WPC expanded the Bumble Bee Recovery Program into Glenbow Ranch Provincial Park!

Glenbow Ranch Provincial Park. Photo © A. Sturm

Glenbow Ranch Provincial Park is a protected area located in a unique part of the province where the prairie grasslands meet the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. This park has many visitors, including cyclists, hikers, painters, and what some people may describe as a particularly lively group—the bee enthusiasts! Our Pollinator Citizen Scientists, with their bee nets, clipboards, coolers and cameras, tend not to blend in, and for good reason! This season alone, our citizen science program had over 40 volunteers help set up, monitor and take down 100 bumble bee nest boxes at the park. Our volunteers’ dedication to the program this year has been extraordinary! They’ve helped WPC record 16 different bumble bee species in the park, including two at-risk species—the western bumble bee (Bombus occidentalis) and the yellow-banded bumble bee (Bombus terricola); and have added over 80 hours of bumble bee survey data to add our database!

Left: Yellow-banded bumble bee, Bombus terricola (Photo © J. Millen); and Right: Western bumble bee, Bombus occidentalis (Photo © S. Johnson). 

 

 

 

Although still fairly new, the Bumble Bee Recovery Program in Alberta has already established an amazing group of dedicated volunteers who have contributed valuable species information for bumble bee conservation and bumble bee monitoring in the Canadian prairies. We are so excited to continue the program in 2019, and we can’t wait to see what we find!

Volunteers set out to install bumble bee nest boxes at Glenbow Ranch Provincial park in early spring. Photo © S. Johnson

Dedicated volunteers help collect the bumble bee nest boxes at WPC’s nest box season-ending event. Photo © A. Sturm

If you want to get involved in bumble bee conservation, join us in one of our citizen science programs next year, or visit BumbleBeeWatch.Org! BumbleBeeWatch.Org allows scientists to be in a hundred places at once by having you, the citizen scientist, help us collect the data we need. You can practice your identification skills by uploading photos of bumble bees to www.bumblebeewatch.org. This website has an interactive ID key, and your observations will be verified by regional experts and used to help monitor bumble bee populations across North America. This is your opportunity to get outdoors, connect with nature and explore it, and, most importantly, contribute to conservation.

If you would like more information about our Alberta Citizen Science Programs, please email us at albertabeecitsci@wildlifepreservation.ca

If you would like more information about our Ontario Citizen Science Programs, please email us at ontariobeecitsci@wildlifepreservation.ca

-The Bumble Bee Recovery Program