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Elizabeth Elle

Bee biologist Elizabeth Elle with a sampling of native mason bees, sweat bees, bumble bees, mining bees and digger bees.

Biologist joins national buzz over woes of bees

June 11, 2009

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Are insect pollinators in trouble, as media reports would have it? According to Elizabeth Elle (above), the answer is a qualified "yes."

"A lot of concern about whether or not we’re having a crisis centres around the managed honeybee, used for pollination of crops, which has been in serious decline lately," says the noted SFU bee biologist.

"We know less about our native pollinators such as bumblebees."

That’s a gap Elle plans to help fill as a collaborator in CANPOLIN, the Canadian Pollination Initiative, which brings together a unique multidisciplinary network of 44 researchers from 26 institutions across Canada to explore the scope of the pollination problem.

The $5-million, five-year program funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council will investigate everything from pollinator health and conservation to gene flow in plants, the impact of climate change and the economics of pollination.

Elle leads a group working to assess pollination by wild pollinators in managed ecosystems (agriculture) and wild areas. "We’re looking at the linkages between agriculture and conservation," she says.

"We think that, for example, in the Okanagan, those linkages might be very strong. If native bees are actually doing a fair bit of the pollination in orchards, that would mean pollinator decline would have a bigger impact on agriculture because we tend to assume that almost all of the pollination in crops is being done by honeybees."

Besides studying native pollinators, Elle also does public outreach to raise awareness of their importance. Her recent talk at SFU’s Vancouver campus, "A Plea for the Bees’ Needs" drew a large crowd and can be viewed online at http://at.sfu.ca/iuReHS.

Elle is also involved in an Environmental Youth Alliance initiative to distribute manufactured nests for mason bees—so-called bee condos.

"We may not be able to do much for specialist pollinators dependent upon particular wild plant species," she says.

"But we can make a difference to local pollinator communities whose food supply has been negatively impacted by human activities like development."

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