Bumble bee season, which runs from April through October in Ontario, is a very busy time for our pollinator team. Most of our days (weather-dependent) are spent on the road; travelling from site to site to conduct bumble bee surveys. We try to survey at sites throughout the province so that we cover as much of it as possible, and this year, our sites ranged from the northwest shores of Lake Erie, all the way up to the northern shores of Lake Superior.

In the spring, our priority during surveys is to collect yellow-banded bumble bee queens to use in our conservation breeding program. Finding enough queens, however, can be a bit of a challenge. For our 2018 field season, we had a field crew based out of Guelph to survey our southernmost sites, and we added two new regional field crews to the team – one stationed in Sudbury, and one in Thunder Bay. The addition of these new teams allowed for better survey coverage across the province, and allowed us to increase the number of wild-caught queens that we installed in our conservation breeding program. Our Regional Field Lead for Thunder Bay, Tiffani Harrison, started with the Bumble Bee Recovery Program in the spring of 2017. Below, she tells us all about her early days as a member of the pollinator team, and what she’s learned about bumble bees since joining the program.

Bumble bee on dandelion © T. Harrison.

When I joined the team as a bumble bee conservation technician in the spring of 2017, I didn’t quite know what I was getting myself into. I didn’t know a lot about bees (aside from what I heard in the media), and most of what I thought I knew about native bees was actually about honey bees. During my undergraduate degree, I had gained experience conducting field work, but had never surveyed for bumble bees before, so I wasn’t sure what to expect– would I be wearing one of those suits that beekeepers wear? Would I get stung? It didn’t really matter though; I was excited to start this job, and little did I know, this would be an experience that would change my life.

Left: Willow in bloom © T. Harrison; Right: Yellow-banded bumble bee © H. Tompkins.

On my first day in the field I learned so many new things! I learned how to use an extendable sweep net to collect bumble bees, how to transfer them to a vial, and most importantly I started learning about bumble bee identification. We surveyed for bumble bee queens at two sites that day; at our first site, we were collecting queens from some very tall willows, and I think I might have been the only one not to catch a bumble bee at all. Thankfully, another member of the team collected our first yellow-banded bumble bee queen of the season there (and was she ever beautiful!). The team was thrilled, but I didn’t quite know or understand the value of finding her yet. Yellow-banded bumble bees are listed as a species at risk and are currently a major focus of Wildlife Preservation Canada’s Bumble Bee Recovery Program.

At our second site that day we surveyed off of periwinkle, a ground-cover flower that was a bit easier to survey from, compared to the willows at the first site. While I was scanning the periwinkle flowers on a hillside, I spotted and caught my first bumble bee queen, (a two-spotted bumble bee), and it was absolutely exhilarating to say the least! The next queen I caught was a tri-coloured bumble bee, which is a species that has two bright orange bands on the abdomen. Prior to this point I had no idea bumble bees even had colours other than black and yellow, and I was amazed to learn that some species even had brown, red and even white on them.

Left: Tri-coloured bumble bee © T. Harrison; Middle: Periwinkle in bloom © Walter Muma; Right: Two-spotted bumble bee © © H. Tompkins.

Throughout the months of May and June during my first field season, my team and I travelled across Ontario to survey for bumble bees in areas such as; Halton Hills, Caledon, Huntsville, Sudbury, and for the first time, all the way up to Thunder Bay. It was the first time I had travelled so much across Ontario and was the farthest up north in Ontario I had ever been! Can you imagine spending your days outside in beautiful new places, running around catching bumble bees? It’s even better than it sounds.

Tiffani labelling a collection vial and holding a bumble bee on her first day © H. Tompkins.

Even though we caught a yellow-banded bumble bee queen our first field day, it wasn’t until later on that I realized how difficult it was going to be to find them throughout the rest of our field season. Each -day, it was as if we were set on mission to find at least one yellow-banded bumble bee queen at our site. However, during some survey days, we would catch over 100 bumble bees, but no yellow-banded bumble bee. Other days we might catch half that amount but find one or two yellow-banded bumble bees. At some sites we might not catch any bees at all! This uncertainty was all part of the process, and I realized that, this was what it was like to work with a species at risk.

Working with Wildlife Preservation Canada’s Native Pollinator Initiative was, and continues to be, an extremely rewarding experience. To work with a species at risk is a feeling like no other. To truly feel like you are part of something much larger than yourself, is a feeling I’ll always treasure. They say it’s all about the chase, and today, long after this contract, I’m still chasing bumble bees.

Once a bumbler, always a bumbler.

Tiffani conducting 2018 summer surveys, © M. Hanes.

– The Bumble Bee Recovery Program.