What's the Buzz?

Most people know a bit about the honey bee, introduced from Europe and managed for crop pollination and honey.  But did you realize that there are more than 20,000 species of bees on the planet, including about 450 right here in British Columbia?  That’s more than there are birds in all of Canada!  And of course there’s more than bees visiting flowers.  Let’s explore the bees of your backyard and the pollinators of our parks!!




Part 1: What kind of pollinators are near you?

Anything that visits a flower to eat pollen or nectar has the potential to pollinate flowers.  Pollination is the movement of pollen from one flower to another, and can lead to fertilization of that flower and the production of seeds and fruits.  About one out of every three bites you eat is thanks to pollination by bees, including fruits like blueberries and strawberries, nuts and seeds including sunflower seeds, and even the seeds and fruits responsible for coffee and chocolate!  

What to do

  • Find a location with flowers to watch.  This can be in a garden, a lawn that has dandelions and daisies, a park with formal plantings or with wildflowers.  All pollinators are on the hunt for pollen and nectar, so if you find a spot with flowers you are going to see them!  It’s best to do this on warm sunny days, because insects won’t be active if it’s very cold or rainy.
  • Get comfortable and watch the flowers for a few minutes.  What do you see?  There are likely to be several different kinds of bees, plus flies, wasps, beetles, and maybe even butterflies, moths, or hummingbirds.  To get an idea of what different kinds of pollinators look like, you can read this web page:   https://www.sfu.ca/people/eelle/bee_info.html
  • The basic rules:  flies have two wings and short stubby antennae;  bees have four wings and long antennae;  and when comparing bees and wasps, well, bees have cuter faces!  Beyond that, different kinds of bees carry their pollen in different places and have different kinds of bodies.  Depending on how observant you are, you may be able to distinguish many kinds of pollinators!

Part 2: Once you can recognize some pollinators, you can investigate their preferences

In collaboration with Border Free Bees, a public art initiative of the Emily Carr University of Art and Design and the University of British Columbia-Okanagan, scientists at Simon Fraser University have been working to raise awareness about pollinators.  The group is working with citizen scientists to figure out the plants that different kinds of pollinators prefer, because these preferred plants could then be used in pollinator pastures that provide food for bees and help in their conservation. 

Border Free Bees has lots of resources to help you identify pollinators and will soon release the Insight App that will allow citizen scientists to contribute to what we know about pollinators in our gardens and wild places.  In the meantime, you can investigate the pollinators in your area.

  • Notice how different flowers vary in shape, size, and colour.  Find patches of flowers that differ in some of these traits so you can investigate how they affect pollinator choices.
  • Watch different kinds of flowers separately to record data on what you see.
  • Choose a large patch if you can, say about a meter square.  Imagine a square that is the width of a door. 
  • Watch the patch for 2 minutes.  Most cell phones have a timer that you can use for this.
  • Count all the insects you observe visiting the patch.  Do flowers that differ in shape, size, or colour differ in the visit rate, the number of insects you observe per unit time?
  • Advanced:  use the Insight e-book to decide what kind of insects are vising each patch of flowers.  Do flowers that differ in shape, size, or colour differ in the visit frequency by different kinds of insects?
  • Common flowers you might compare:  dandelions;  blackberry;  lupines;  fireweed;  white clover; red clover.

Part 3: Do you find different pollinators in different habitats?

The Pollination Ecology Lab has studied pollinators on farms, in backyards, and in endangered wild places, and they are not the same.  In fact, even different cultivated varieties of blueberries are visited at different frequency by different pollinators.

Find some contrasting habitats, such as balcony gardens, suburban gardens, farms, and parks.  Observe pollinators in these different habitats, and compare visit rate and visit frequency. How do they differ?

What's going on?

Different flowers vary in how attractive they are to bees and other pollinators.  Some have more pollen or nectar than others, for example fireweed has much more nectar than lupine, which can affect visit rate.  Some flower shapes are easier for bees to feed on than others.  For instance, red clover flowers are actually groups of many flowers in a single ball, and each flower is a long tube with nectar at the bottom.  The tube on a red clover is too long for honey bee tongues to reach the nectar, so it’s likely you mostly saw bumble bees on red clover if it was one of the plant species you focused on.  Lupines hide their pollen inside the petals, while other flowers like dandelions are shaped like big dinner plates—easy for pollinators to get to.  Some of these basic principles of pollination ecology can be useful if you decide to plant a pollinator-friendly garden.  There is more information on pollinator attractive plants for pollinator gardens here:  https://www.sfu.ca/people/eelle/bee_info.html

Different habitats also frequently have different pollinators.  Different kinds of bees are active at different times of year, for example mining bees only forage in spring and early summer, but bumble bees are active from March to September.  Different habitats have different bee food (flowers) available at different times, so this can lead to differences in the pollinators they support.  More disturbed areas like farms and gardens also tend to have the really common bees that can handle disturbance, which includes managed bees like honey bees as well as those that can nest in human-dominated areas, like mason bees that live in “bee condos”.  Natural areas like some parks tend to have a greater diversity of bees, and more of the uncommon ones that aren’t managed by people.

There has been a lot of press on how bees are in trouble;  the main reason wild bees are facing challenges is habitat loss.  Like all animals, they need food and lodging in order to survive and reproduce.  This is why learning what flowers they like and planting pollinator gardens is so important—it means that even urban areas can become reservoirs for pollinator diversity!   

Meet Elizabeth Elle, Bee Queen

Dr. Elizabeth Elle is a professor in the department of Biological Science at SFU and Vice-Provost and Associate Vice-President, Learning and Teaching. She has been fascinated with bees since she was two years old. 

Find out more about Dr. Elle here!