The Bees' Needs

Sep 19, 2002, vol. 25, no. 2
By Roberta Staley

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To bee or not to bee. Two university students have answered that question - revealing how vital these busy, buzzing, little nectar collectors are to the health of our cities.

SFU environmental science major Desiree Tommasi (left) and UBC ecology student Alice Miro also discovered how important cities are, in turn, in maintaining diverse bee populations.

Much more than just concrete jungles, cities can sustain many species of bees due to the variety of vegetables, fruit, berries, weeds and flowers that grow in urban centers. Quid pro quo, of course. Without bees to pollinate plants, we couldn't enjoy the robust harvests of fruit, vegetables and flowers we do now. Cities, says 19-year-old Tommasi, “ are oases for bees.”

Bees have developed a taste for city life because the rural environment - where common sense says they would flourish - is polluted by heavy pesticide and herbicide use. Farmers depend upon these chemicals to eliminate weeds and insects that reduce crop yields. Such toxins are indiscriminate, also killing benevolent, useful creatures like bees, and fellow pollinators like ladybugs and butterflies.

“Bees are the ultimate pollinators, and pollinators are considered endangered,” says 20-year-old Miro.

Monoculture farming - the cultivation of one predominant crop - is also death to bee diversity. For example, only a single bee species may have the anatomy, such as appropriate tongue or head size, to collect nectar from a monoculture crop like cranberries, Miro says. Alternatively, farmers may plant vast fields of wheat, whose reduced flowers are not conducive to bee pollination.

These discoveries are part of groundbreaking research that has kept Tommasi and Miro busy for two years. The pair received $70,000 in funding for the two year study from the EJLB Foundation and Canada Trust Friends for the Environment. They have submitted their findings to Canadian Entomologist.

Tommasi and Miro's methodology was engrossing - and entertaining for onlookers. During the summer, Miro and Tommasi chased and caught bees throughout Vancouver parks, backyards, wilderness sanctuaries, fields and roadways with their canvas, V-shaped nets.

(Unlike honey bees, which live in colonies, virtually all bee species are solitary.)

They captured 1,000 bees and identified 56 different species in the laboratory. The pair was also able to estimate bee numbers, which is how they established that urban populations are higher than rural.

Neither student was stung in two years of bee catching, something they attribute to the insects' good nature.

Research was only half of Miro and Tommasi's study, which they dubbed the Once Upon a Bee Project. The pair also created and conducted education programs about bees for children and adults.

“To hold children's interest in the study, we referred to bees as fairies and bee pollen as fairy dust, hence the fairy tale title of the study,” says Miro.
But there is nothing whimsical about the urgency to preserve bee habitat. It is vital, Miro says, for city planners throughout North America to recognize that urban centres are bee sanctuaries. Homeowners should be encouraged to avoid pesticide and herbicide use and grow plants that support bee populations.

A pristine green lawn devoid of dandelions and weeds, or a colourful flowerbed of annuals, which contain very little pollen, are a wasteland to these insects, Miro says.

The ideal garden is one rich with native plant species, vegetables, fruit trees, herbs, berry bushes and perennial flowers.

Spying such a smorgasbord, any bee would buzz, “how sweet it is.”•

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