Ramblings of an entomologist…

By: Carolyn Davies

Bees pollinate flowering plants. Seems simple enough, but did you know that animal pollination is vital for the productivity of numerous crops, including most fruit, vegetables, and nuts? Their work allows for the production of alfalfa to raise cattle and the creation of acorns for new oak trees. They ensure that diverse plant communities all over the globe can regenerate, so they can continue to produce oxygen, purify the air, filter the water, moderate the climate, and build soil. Bees really are THAT important!

How do we help the bees?

A fundamental shift must occur – we must stop trying to blanket our planet in highly controlled spaces that are toxic food deserts to bees (ie. concrete, pavement, lawns, vast expanses of single-crop fields, non-native and invasive plants). We must embrace the beauty of diverse native landscapes. We must act as if other living things are important.

Consider what it would be like to walk into a grocery store to find that the fresh foods you rely on are gone, replaced with White Baneberry, English Yew, and Poison Oak (all highly toxic to humans!). A few days later, you stop in to find that the entire building is filled with nothing but in-season strawberries… until they run out. Then there is nothing. This is what we are doing to the bees, replacing their food with things they can’t eat and planting massive fields with a single crop that flowers all at the same time. 

We’ve known about this for a long time, but instead of fixing the problem by restoring native landscapes, we’ve brought in European honey bees (Apis mellifera) to try to fill the pollination gap. In some regions of the world, land modification and extensive use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides have left the land uninhabitable to all insect pollinators, and people are now employed to hand-pollinate apple orchards.

I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t fascinated by insects and all the ways they support life on our planet!

Figure 1: Entomology field research trip to Ecuador (circa 2002)

Now, as the resident entomologist (a.k.a. Bug geek) at Pollinate Collingwood, I have an obligation to share my knowledge to inspire others. What I know is that these tiny creatures are essential, amazing, fascinating, and stunningly beautiful wildlife that ensure the functioning of the planet, as we know it… so let’s take a moment to learn a little more about these wonderful animals:

  • Insect: a group of animals (yes, they are animals, just like you!!) with 3 distinct body parts (head, thorax, abdomen) and 3 pairs of legs. Beyond that, most insects have a pair of compound eyes to see almost 180 degrees around their body simultaneously and three simple eyes arranged in a triangle on the top of the head for detecting light levels. Quite a few have wings, like the flies (which have only one pair), dragonflies, bees, butterflies, and beetles (these all have two pairs). Others, like ants, have none (well, most of the time). Insects are quite variable – in fact there are more species of insects than all other known species of everything else combined (including plants, fungi, bacteria, archaeans, protozoans, and the rest of the invertebrates). This diversity of body types is matched by the different roles they play and interactions they have in the environment – meaning that they influence lots of important processes!
  • Bug: while many people use this term interchangeably with “insect”, true bugs are insects in the Order Hemiptera (there are just under 30 insect Orders in all, depending on the current understanding of evolutionary relationships between groups – see https://www.amentsoc.org/insects/fact-files/orders/). True bugs include cicadas, aphids, leafhoppers, and other insects that have straw-like mouthparts that are used for sucking up fluids. Mostly, this is for sucking from plants, but some (like bed bugs and assassin bugs), feed on other animals. Having the correct name is helpful to understanding the differences between them!
  • Pollinator: You’ve heard the term, you know them (and now you also know that they’re not bugs)! These are animals that have a specific job to help plants reproduce as plants have an inherent difficulty in finding a partner since they can’t move around. While some plants, like grasses and conifers, use the wind to carry their pollen, much gets wasted this way. The flowering plants have instead evolved to be more conservative with their pollen by producing and offering nectar as a reward to any organism that will visit and help to disperse its pollen. While we don’t know exactly how many flowering plants are pollinated by animals, Jeff Ollerton and his colleagues in 2011, used all sorts of data to estimate this number at 308 006, which is 87.5% of known flowering plants species.
  • Butterfly: Butterflies are generally considered to be important pollinators. Butterflies (and moths) are identified by their large wings covered in scales and their retractable sucking mouthparts (more like a hose, than a straw) for drinking nectar (of course, it’s not quite that simple, as some have no mouth parts once they leave the caterpillar stage). While visiting flowers, they invariably pick up some pollen and transport it to another flower. This is called a mutually beneficial relationship, as both the butterfly and the flowering plant get something they need, but butterflies aren’t the best pollinators as they are often happy to drink the nectar from any blossom, and plants need their pollen to go to other of their own species.  
  • Bee: The best pollinators are the bees. Bees evolved to collect pollen. Regardless of the flower shape, flowering time, or even location of the flowering plant, there is a species of bee uniquely evolved to support the reproduction needs of each! There are even bees in the arctic! Check out the search for Bombus polaris. The number of bee species is quite astounding – there are currently more than 20,507 species of bees on our planet that vary greatly in size and colour.

Figure 2: Bees come in black, white, and basically every colour of the rainbow! L-R top row, then bottom row – Osmia californica female, Colletes mandibularis male, Nomada denticulata male, Lasioglossum vierecki female, Osmia exigua female, Osmia bruneri female – all Canadian species (photo credits: Bees of Canada Gallery, Packer Lab, York University). 

More about bees!

Different bees are active at specific times of the year – so there are spring active bees and late summer bees. During their active time, females need to find a nest site, mate, and rear young (but not necessarily in that order). Spring active bees typically overwinter as adults, while late-season bees typically overwinter as larvae. The emergence of each species’ adults is aligned with a particular blooming period. While we don’t yet fully understand how they do this so effectively, we do know that climate change is impacting groups of organisms differently. So, bees that are specialists on certain flowers, may emerge to find that they’ve missed the blooming time and there is no food for them to gather for themselves or their offspring. 

So, how do you know it’s a bee?  

Bees are identified by the branched hairs that they have covering their bodies, which help to trap and transport pollen (See Figure 3). Since bees can sting to protect themselves, loads of other insects have evolved to look like bees to adopt this protection (check out this great post on bee mimics).  

Figure 3: Branched bee hairs (photo credit: Megan Asche via Twitter) – and yes, that’s a pollen grain (possibly Echinacea, but it’s hard to ID from this image)

Important Next Steps

What do we do with a better understanding of bees and other pollinators?? If we don’t want to continue down a path that leads to ecosystem collapse, there is a simple solution that involves restoring native plant communities. Pollinate Collingwood, along with countless other groups like us, are working hard to improve pollinator habitat on a local scale. While there are numerous ways to do this, Pollinate Collingwood is getting native plants in the ground, working with the Town of Collingwood to make municipal level changes, speaking to garden clubs and school groups, giving away free native seeds and plants, and working with local nurseries to expand the native plant offerings and signage. It’s a lot of work, and it’s vitally important.

What can you do? Join our work – connect with us on social media, choose to add native plants on your property, volunteer to help in our gardens, or write to your municipal officials about the importance of a pollination protection strategy. You don’t need to be in Collingwood… we need pollinators everywhere! 

To support our environment, there is no BEST strategy. We need them all – we must reduce, reuse, recycle, grow our own vegetables, compost, buy less, teach, be inspired, connect with nature, plant natives… Just start somewhere, make it a habit, then pick another. Local pollinators have already been lost or are on the verge (ie. Rusty-patched bumblebee, Gypsy cuckoo bumblebee, Karner Blue butterfly, Frosted Elfin, Mottled Duskywing….) – Let’s make sure we support the rest!

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