By Claudia Copley
You may be surprised to learn that there are approximately 450 species of bee in B.C. and potentially as many as hundred more species may be added to that list.
In fact, we have more than half of the bee species that occur in Canada and fully 30 per cent of these can only be found in the south-central Interior.
All bees share a few key features.
Unlike wasps and ants, bees are vegetarian. Instead of a predatory lifestyle, bees feed their young protein-rich pollen.
Another difference can be found in the hairs of bees.
While not all bees are hairy, they all have some hair and some of these hairs are plumose (branched), when viewed under the microscope. And just when you think you have it figured out, along comes a fly posing expertly as a bee. Here the easiest things to check for are the four wings (on a bee).
The European honey bee is a non-native species that was brought to our coast in 1858 for honey production and pollination services.
Honey bees form large colonies of up to 60,000 individuals, consisting of a single queen, thousands of female worker bees, and a few males waiting for a queen to carry out a mating flight. The queen can live several years, and hives overwinter as a large colony.
Although not as diverse as other groups of bees, (only 39 species in B.C.), bumble bees are a very challenging group because of the variation within each species.
With few exceptions, a bumble bee must be collected to identify it. A relatively easy bumble bee to identify is also a rare bee: the western bumble bee – now considered threatened under Canada’s Species At Risk Act.
Bumble bees form hives on a small scale – a queen and usually fewer than 50 worker bees. Only queens overwinter, and they only live for a year.
And last but certainly not least - the hundreds of solitary bees moving from flower to flower unnoticed and under-appreciated.
Here is where the greatest surprises can be found: species that look like wasps or flies, some so small you cannot tell they are a bee until you see them under a microscope, some that nest in the exit holes of beetles from dead trees, others that burrow into the ground, and still others that create special structures out of leaves to house their young.
A solitary bee that many people are familiar with is the blue orchard bee or mason bee. In nature they use small holes in trees to nest, but we can provide homes for this species and benefit from its incredible pollination efficiency.
Ground-nesting solitary bees can be encouraged by leaving areas of exposed and undisturbed soil. Hollow stems are another popular nesting site for solitary bees, so don’t be so quick to tidy things up or you will be eliminating important pollinator habitat.
We have approximately 15,000 specimens of bees already in the Royal B.C. Museum collection, and many of them have been identified through the volunteer efforts of Dave Blades, a research associate in entomology, as well as Dr. Cory Sheffield, a leading bee expert in Canada now working at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum. Staff at the B.C. Ministry of Environment and Environment Canada, as well as RBCM entomology staff and volunteers have been helping to improve these collections and provide a clearer picture of how this essential group of organisms is faring.
You can help reverse pollinator declines by choosing to eat pesticide-free foods, helping protect natural areas, and providing habitat in urban areas through the use of native plants.
Claudia Copley is the Senior Collections Manager, Entomology at the Royal B.C. Museum.