Species of the Month, June 2022: Bumble Bees

Species of the Month, June 2022: Bumble Bees
by Dr. Victoria MacPhail, Research Associate, Faculty of Environmental and Urban Change, York University

June is International Pollinator Month and so it’s a great time to focus on my favourite pollinators – the bumble bees! These cute fuzzy bees are probably our best-known native pollinator. While we often think of them as having black and yellow stripes, some may also have red, orange, brown, and even white patches or stripes. They’re a true Canadian bee – they don’t mind a bit of cold, cloudy or drizzly weather in the spring, which makes them really good pollinators of spring flowering crops like apples, unlike the non-native Western honeybee, which prefers warm days with clear skies.

Common Eastern bumble bee on tomato plant. Photo: Victoria MacPhail

Bumble bees are one of the few groups of bees that can buzz-pollinate. If you love tomatoes you need to thank a bumble bee, as it they can grab the male part of a flower and vibrate their flight muscles at a frequency that releases the pollen from slits in the anthers; this covers the bee with pollen and makes it available for both incidental transfer to the female parts of the flower (i.e. pollination) as well as for the bee to use to feed others in her colony. Without this vibration though, the pollen would not be released, and the flower would not be pollinated. Indeed, when tomatoes first started being grown in greenhouses, people would have to manually pollinate the flowers by hand, often by using a tuning fork to cause the needed vibrations. Today, bumble bees are being bred and managed for commercial pollination in these glasshouses.

Bumble bees in commercial tomato greenhouse. Photo: Victoria MacPhail

There have been about 15 species of bumble bees found in the Long Point area, although some, like the Rusty-patched and the Bohemian cuckoo bumble bees, have disappeared in the last two decades and others, like the American and Yellow bumble bees, are in decline. The reasons are complex, but non-native species, diseases, climate change, pesticides, and habitat loss all play a role. The best ways to help save the bees are to 1) submit sightings to community science programs like www.bumblebeewatch.org; 2) advocate locally through nationally for better protection for pollinators, from legislation that increases studies and restrictions on the use of pesticides and actions to limit the effects of climate change to programs that promote pollinator-friendly gardening and farming; and, 3) become more pollinator-friendly yourself, such as through choosing products that are produced locally and with pollinator-friendly methods, by increasing habitat on your property, and reducing your carbon footprint. So grab your camera and take a closer look at the bees you see in your yard or on your walks, and thank a pollinator whenever you have a meal as 1 in 3 bites of a food would not be possible without them.

American bumble bee. Photo: Victoria MacPhail