Hayley, Wildlife Preservation Canada’s Ontario Program Biologist for our Native Pollinator Initiative, recently visited a friend in London, England, this past summer, and was inspired by a book she purchased called “Nature’s Wonder Workers”. Written in 1986 by Kate R. Lovell, this book is an artful depiction of the wonderful world of insects, and Hayley’s favourite part was the section on bees—is anyone surprised?! While reading, this sentence in particular stood out for Hayley:

No one with the smallest power of observation could wander through the heather on a common, or bask in the fragrance and warmth of a clover-field in full bloom, without noticing the many insects, each bearing the essential characteristics of bees, yet differing in size and shape, that flit from flower to flower” (Lovell, p. 72).

On the left is heather (Calluna vulgaris), a flowering shrub native throughout Europe and found somewhat commonly in Canadian gardens [Licensed under CC BY 2.0. Photo © Natalia], and on the right is the cover of Lovell’s book in which she presents different insects as interesting individuals, rather than just as a group to be studied as a whole [Photo © Book Depository].

Our Native Pollinator Initiative focuses primarily on native plants and native pollinators, but today, we’re going to shift your attention (a bit!) to an important, and very popular, non-native bee species – the European honey bee (Apis mellifera). Often, when our team does outreach focused on native pollinators, there’s always at least one question about the honey bee, and even more comments about all things honey bee-related. Our favourite comment when we start talking about native pollinators is the classic, “I love honey!” admission! Of course, we too enjoy honey, especially in our tea, but honey bees are not native to Canada, and our native bees don’t make honey—at least not the honey we’re talking about here.


Participants at a workshop at Grundy Lake Provincial Park learn about the diversity of pollinators, especially of native bees, in Ontario. Photo © T. Harrison

Honey bees were introduced to North America, and are kept today by beekeepers for their honey and for the pollination services they provide in (predominantly) agricultural landscapes. There is often confusion about the differences between bumble bees and honey bees, and even some reputable media networks will publish pictures of a honey bee when discussing the plight of native pollinators (such as bumble bees). Reflecting on the quote at the beginning of this post, we know that there are many insects that can look alike – to an untrained eye, honey bees and bumble bees can be confused with some of the 800+ other species of native bees in Canada, or, if you’ve been following along, you’ll remember we also posted about those tricky mimic flies a few weeks ago!

Today, we hope to leave you with a clearer picture of some of the main differences between bumble bees and honey bees. If you missed it, check out one of our older entries (September 2018), the Wonderful World of Bees, to explore more of the diversity that exists in our native bees!

On the left, a yellow-banded bumble bee queen (Bombus terricola) visits a dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) flower in the spring [Photo © S. Johnson], and on the right, a honey bee worker (Apis mellifera) also visits a dandelion flower [Photo © StellaLou Farm].

Honey bees and native bees… in harmony? 

Native pollinators (especially native bees) play a key role in the successful functioning of both natural and agricultural systems, and significantly contribute to the pollination of wild plants and food crops. There is clear evidence of widespread declines of native pollinators, including at least one third of bumble bee species in Canada. Bumble bees remain the most well-documented group of wild bees, and many threatened species in the group are a conservation focus of our Bumble Bee Recovery Program.

Hayley collecting bumble bees at a lavender farm in southern Ontario. The bee in the vial, the yellow-banded bumble bee, is a species listed as of Special Concern and is a target for Wildlife Preservation Canada’s research and conservation initiatives in Ontario. This species is native to the area and has shown rapid declines in parts of its range in recent years. Photo © V. MacPhail

One of the factors thought to be contributing to the declines we see in many of our native bees is the introduction of non-native species, like the European honey bee. A healthy ecosystem is one that can support the needs of the species within it. When we introduce non-native species, like the European honey bee, we upset the balance that the ecosystem maintains by adding new components to the system, like the addition of new competitors for limiting resources, and the introduction of new pathogens and parasites.  Sometimes, native species are able to adjust and balance in the ecosystem can be restored, but often times these introductions can have negative consequences on some species, which can translate to consequences for the ecosystem as a whole.

We are in a time when our population’s demands on food production depends on the pollination of large-scale agricultural fields, and sometimes, only managed bees are able to keep up with this task. To this end, it is important that we continue working to understand how the introduction of non-native species, and the pathogens they bring with them, affect the balance in ecosystems that have traditionally supported healthy populations of native bees. We need to find ways to help mitigate these (and other) threats to our native bee species, while also supporting the managed species many of our food crops rely on.

If you want to learn more about bumble bees as pollinators, you can read our previous post where we describe some of the characteristics that make bumble bees some of Canada’s best native insect pollinators. While there, check out some of our other posts on native bees! These blogs are one way we are beginning to shift the conversation away from focusing on the honey bee, and instead, highlighting the importance of our native bees and why conserving them is critical.

– The Bumble Bee Recovery Program