Elizabeth Elle - Bee Queen

Elizabeth is a professor in the department of Biological Sciences at SFU and has been passionate about bees since she was a child.

Click here for Elizabeth's research website.

What got you into doing this research?

I was fascinated as a kid with all the different shapes and colours of flowers, with insects, with wildlife; basically I've been a naturalist all my life. Later, as an undergraduate, I had a professor who pointed out that plants (unlike, say, wolves) are likely to be there when you return to your field site to study them! That combination was powerful enough that I started my scientific career by using genetic markers to understand how flower shape affected mating patterns in plants--basically, I was doing an analysis of paternity. That rather naturally lead to wondering what the pollinators were doing. Almost 90% of flowering plants on earth can't reproduce without a pollinator, so obviously they have something to do with plant mating patterns. Learning about bees has been an amazing journey, and it's allowed me to give something back to land managers like Nature Conservancy Canada and BC Parks by helping them understand pollinator diversity in the highly endangered Garry Oak Ecosystem where most of my students work. 

Why is your research important?

The saying goes, "one out of every three bites you eat is thanks to a bee". That's thanks not just to managed (and introduced!) honeybees, but our wild pollinators too. There are more than 450 species of bees in British Columbia, not to mention all the species of pollinating flies, wasps, beetles, and butterflies. We work with farmers to understand their pollination challenges, and how to balance the needs of modern agriculture (chemical inputs, land conversion) with conservation of the pollinators that are so important for our food supply. And because the birds and the bears also need to thank bees for their food, a big part of our research is focused on understanding how pollinator diversity varies across landscapes, especially those impacted by human activities like urbanization, agriculture, and cattle grazing. We seek to understand which plant-pollinator communities are able to be resilient when faced with disturbance, and why, so we can protect these communities and the important pollination function they provide.

What do you love about it?

We work in some beautiful places, and sometimes I just can't believe it's my job to hike around in them. I also get to spend a lot of time working at the microscope and identifying bees to species (there isn't anyone else in BC that has this ability at the moment). Insects are incredibly beautiful, and I really cherish the time I get to spend looking at them, magnified, to appreciate how intricate they are. But most important is that I love the chance to keep learning new things. I've only been focused on bees for about a decade so despite being the expert on BC bees, I am always learning fascinating things about them. Sometimes it's little things (like male bees have moustaches! and sleep in flowers!) and sometimes it's bigger (like when our analysis of distributions patterns helped us see that different species of bumble bees are associated with urban areas vs. forests, because of the different ways the species make nests). And then I get to "pay it forward", to teach the graduate and undergraduate students in my lab, and to give talks and workshops to the public, from kids to seniors. I have the best job ever.

Anything else?

People are often nervous around bees because they can sting. But in the many years I've been studying them, I've been stung only a handful of times. And usually because I deserve it--like the time I saw a really cool bee on a cactus flower, and was nervous about ripping up my brand new net on the cactus thorns, so I grabbed the bee with my hand. She wasn't pleased with the way I was squeezing her. In general, though, bees just aren't that interested in you--they are interested in getting pollen and nectar to feed themselves and to bring back to the nest to feed their young. They won't chase you or otherwise be aggressive (some wasps can be aggressive defenders of their nests, but bees are generally pretty docile). And, essential to know, male bees can't sting--they don't have stingers! This is why knowing male bees have moustaches is a very important scientific fact! You can grab a male bee anytime and he can't hurt you!