We are buzzing with excitement to introduce you to another one of Wildlife Preservation Canada’s Bumble Bee Recovery Program’s key players. Today’s story comes from Jon who played an important role in caring for our captive bumble bees in the 2018 conservation breeding program at the African Lion Safari. Our conservation breeding program for the yellow-banded bumble bee is a key component of the research we do as part of our Bumble Bee Recovery Program. Developing techniques to maintain healthy and productive captive populations of this and other at-risk bumble bee species can afford us an opportunity to augment wild populations that have become critically low in the future. Bumble bee colonies that have been established in a conservation breeding program may one day allow us to reintroduce species where they have historically existed but have been extirpated. We are so grateful to our supporting partners, like the ones at the African Lion Safari, who are instrumental in helping us build on this important research.

Jon has been an employee at the African Lion Safari since 2009 where he has worked predominately with birds of prey. Despite pursuing a career mainly focused on birds, Jon’s innate fondness for insects drove him to enroll in every entomology course on offer in his time as a student at the University of Guelph—including two field courses; one in Arizona, and another in Ecuador. Here’s what he had to say about preparing for his first year as a member of Wildlife Preservation Canada’s Bumble Bee Recovery Program team.

Meet Jon, hard at work training a Marabou stork, Leptoptilos crumenifer, during one of the African Lion Safari’s Birds of Prey demonstrations. Photo © E. Sills

“Hello to all the bee enthusiasts out there! Although my professional career has been mainly devoted to birds, I have also worked a great deal with insects. When I learned of the opportunity to be involved with the captive breeding component of Wildlife Preservation Canada’s Bumble Bee Recovery Program for the yellow-banded bumble bee, I was pretty excited to get on board. Although the African Lion Safari is involved in a number of species conservation and recovery programs, including another program in partnership with Wildlife Preservation Canada that aims to protect and recover the endangered Eastern Loggerhead Shrike, this would be the first time our organization would have an opportunity to be directly involved in a project focused on an insect.

Preparing for this new venture was both exciting and intimidating for many reasons. First, this was a new species for us. We needed to develop proper infrastructure and know-how in order to provide optimal care. Second, Wildlife Preservation Canada’s current captive breeding protocols for the yellow-banded bumble bee are still in their infancy and so there are many things still to be learned about housing and propagation under human care. These protocols we are working to develop could eventually help Wildlife Preservation Canada protect and recover other at-risk bumble bee species in North America. Finally, my biggest concern came after meeting Wildlife Preservation Canada’s pollinator team and discovering their excessive use of bee puns. As you can imagine the word bee can be easily substituted anywhere you’d use the word “be” (ex. To bee or not to bee). As one who is susceptible to grabbing such low hanging fruit (see title) I knew I was likely to succumb to the temptation and was worried about the effect it would have on work relationships.

Here’s Jon joining the Bumble Bee Recovery Program’s field staff on a 2018 spring survey. It didn’t take him long to feel right at home working with bumble bees! Photo © G. Rowe

After months of preparation we were finally ready and on May 6th we received our first yellow-banded bumble bee queen, a Miss Valerri, collected by the field team from Valens Conservation Area near Cambridge Ontario. She was the first yellow-banded bumble bee I had ever encountered in real life and she was quite a beautiful specimen! She had a predominately dark, velvet-like body contrasted by striking yellow at the anterior end of her thorax and across two segments of the abdomen (T2 and T3, for those of you who remember meeting Hayley and getting a few bumble bee identification tips). We carefully placed her into her new home and gave her fresh pollen and nectar which she began lapping up immediately.

Here’s Jon continuing to admire Valerri as she settles in to her new home at the African Lion Safari. The future of at-risk species like the yellow-banded bumble bee depend on bees like Valerri, and research programs like those run by Wildlife Preservation Canada’s Bumble Bee Recovery team. Photo © G. Rowe

Valerri would eventually be joined by other yellow-banded bumble bees as the field team continued to collect all across Ontario. On top of providing fresh nectar and pollen I had to monitor the bees’ behaviour closely. We were watching to ensure that the bees were active and healthy, and looked for signs of nest building behaviour. Before we saw a queen construct any brood cells, we noticed an interesting change in behaviour. She began pulsating her abdomen and holding it low to the ground, which was followed by the appearance of a waxy spot or structure (bumble bees secrete their wax from the underside of their abdomens!). This sighting was very exciting! I had expected the appearance of fully formed brood cells to follow but was surprised to see that the first structure to be built by a queen was a nectar pot.  Eventually the queens began developing brood cells which she would deposit eggs and food resources into; enough to fuel the metamorphosis from larvae to bee. To incubate the eggs, the queens would hold their bodies close to the brood cells and vibrate their abdomen in order to keep the temperature just right.

Here’s a photo of a perfect little honey pot built by one of our yellow-banded bumble bee queens. These honey pots serve as a sort of pantry in a bumble bee colony. They give the bees a place to store nectar in case resources ever get scarce. Photo © G. Rowe

Although it might be hard to see in this photo (we try to always work under red light so that we disturb the bees as little as possible—bees can’t see red light!), here is a yellow-banded bumble bee queen extending her abdomen out over her brood cells in order to help incubate them. Photo © G. Rowe

The emergence of our first worker seemed to take forever and was highly anticipated but eventually she emerged. She was a precious little miniature of her mom. She was much smaller than I was expecting (a little smaller and stouter than a honey bee) but she was fierce. Eventually her and her sisters would become a tiny army ready to mobilize at the slightest sign of danger. A sign of danger in this setting was me carefully opening their enclosure to give them pollen and nectar. Unfortunately there was no way for me to convey this misunderstanding as bees primarily rely on pheromone’s to communicate and understand very little English (if any).

It has been and continues to be, an incredible opportunity to be a part of the yellow-banded bumble bee recovery project. It was pretty special to observe in real time the stages of a single queen bee growing into a full on colony. Workers emerge and assist in building and incubating brood cells and vehemently defending their kin. They are working together to ensure the survival of their colony and I’m grateful to be working with a team dedicated to ensuring the survival of their species. We are one step closer to our goal of establishing a captive breeding population of yellow-banded bumble bees which could eventually help supplement declining wild populations. This season we gained many insights as well as practical experience to help us tighten up our protocols. The 2019 bee season can’t come too soon!”

We hope you enjoyed hearing from Jon about our conservation breeding program! To find out more, visit our website at www.wildlifepreservation.ca and don’t forget to catch up on some of the recent blogs you might have missed while you’re there! We hope you continue to check back in with us to hear more stories from the field, learn new facts about bees, and much more. See you next time!

– The Bumble Bee Recovery Program