Welcome to the wonderful world of bees! Members of Wildlife Preservation Canada’s Bumble Bee Recovery team are here to tell you about some of the 800+ species of bees we have here in Canada. The Bumble Bee Recovery Program, which is part of our larger Native Pollinator Initiative, works to save at-risk bumble bee species from extinction. But before we tell you all about our program and what we’ve been up to this year, let’s dive right in to the wonderful world of bees…

Bees and wasps are part of the Order Hymenoptera, and one of the things that separate them from one another is their food preference. Bees are essentially vegetarian wasps, and evolved from their carnivorous ancestors alongside flowering plants, the angiosperms. Because of this, bees are as diverse (or even more-so!) than flowers are.

The people who study wild bees, also known as mellitologists, have different ways of categorizing bees such as functional guilds, behaviour, taxonomy, or morphology. There are over 20,000 species of bees described in the world, and over 800 species in Canada alone! You can think about bee groups as analogies to bird groups – in birds, researchers often group them as songbirds, birds of prey, and game birds, among others. Similarly with bees, mellitologists like to group bees into functional guilds which are usually based on one or more elements of their biologies, such as their nesting strategies or the presence of absence of certain morphological characters. These functional guilds include “bumble bees”, “mining bees”, “carpenter bees”, and others. A single bee family can be very diverse and can have representatives from many guilds!

Family Apidae

Bumble bees are like the teddy bears of the bee world. They are big and fuzzy, so are well-adapted to our Canadian climate, and are considered social insects. Unlike honey bees, the bumble bee colony lives only one season. There are roughly 40 species of bumble bees in Canada.

Honey bee © J. Severns

Honey bees are just one of the 800+ species of bees that are found in Canada. Honey bees are a non-native species in North America, and their colonies can persist for several years, unlike those of the bumble bee.

Bumble bee © S. Johnson

Carpenter bees chew tunnels in the wood where they build their nests. If you’ve ever seen perfectly shaped holes in your deck, shed, or fence, it was likely the result of a carpenter bee. Some species can be very large and look a lot like bumble bees (Xylocopa spp.), and others can be tiny and bright blue in colour (Ceratina spp.). The degree of socialism depends on the individual species, but generally speaking, the large carpenter bees are solitary, and the smaller blue carpenter bees can be solitary to semi-social.

Xylocopa sp. © B. Peterson (left); Ceratina sp. © J. Dvorak (right)

Family Andrenidae

Mining bees, as the name suggests, nest in the ground, with a preference for sandy soils. They are considered a solitary bee, and are very speciose (meaning they come from a very species-rich taxa). Some genera (Andrena, in particular) are very hard to identify to the species level.

Mining bee © Bee Friendly

Family Halictidae

Sweat bees are very common and very speciose. In the field, our team is stung most often by this genus – not because they are aggressive, but because they are small and are always all over us, and we end up squishing them! Sweat bees will drink the sweat off of other animals, including humans. Sweat bees range in sociality, from social to semi- social, depending on the species. One sweat bee, Agapostemon virescens, was coined as Toronto’s “official” bee, because females will watch over one-another’s nests while the other is out foraging. This gesture is like an analogy to being a good neighbour and watching out for one-another—something all cities can get on board with! To read more on Toronto’s bee, click here! 

Sweat bee © B. Thurlow

Family Megachilidae

Leafcutter bees are extremely speciose and biologically diverse in terms of their behaviour and morphology. They have specialized pollen-carrying hairs on the underside of their abdomens called “scopa”, and these scopa can be quite colourful, as can the pollen they carry. They build their brood cells by using leaves and flower petals, and live a solitary life.

Leafcutter bee © H. Wisch

Mason bees are also extremely speciose and biologically diverse. They come in so many colours and sizes, and they use so many different substrates for building brood cells, such as mud, sand, and pebbles, among others. Like the leafcutter bees, they too have incredibly effective pollen carrying scopa on the undersides of their abdomens. The most well known mason bee in Canada is probably the blue orchard mason bee, Osmia lignaria. Their broods are commonly purchased by Canadian farmers and are used to help pollinate crops.

Mason bee © J. Dvorak

Wool carder bees harvest hairs from certain plants, like lambs ear. They will use the hairs to fashion their brood cells, the way others use leaves, mud, and resin. One common wool carder bee, Anthidium manicatum, was accidentally introduced to North America from Europe at some point in the mid 20th century.

Wool carder bee © K. Keatley Garvey

Although the Native Pollinator Initiative loves all 800+ species of bees (and other pollinators too, of course), those of us working in the Bumble Bee Recovery program spend all our time working with – you guessed it – bumble bees! Our program has three major areas of focus:

  1. Research and monitoring, which includes artificial nest boxes, pollinator habitat assessments, extensive bumble bee surveys, and a bumble bee conservation breeding program;
  2. Citizen science programs;
  3. Outreach and stewardship.

Over the next few months, we’re going to tell you all about what our team has been up to this year. Some of our stories focus on our search for yellow-banded bumble bee (Bombus terricola, a species of special concern) queens for our conservation breeding program, the installation and monitoring of bumble bee nest boxes, our citizen science programs and the fabulous volunteers that make them possible, and the education and outreach programs we participate in throughout the year.

We hope you’ll check back in regularly to learn more about bumble bees, threats facing their populations, and what we’re doing to help. We’ll also provide tips along the way of how you can help support bumble bees and their habitat, and how you can contribute to conservation. We’ll BEE seeing you soon!

– The Bumble Bee Recovery Program.