By Mike Keenan
There are many experts in the world, but not many who specialize in bees like Brock University that employs Miriam Richards, a bee expert, and she has some sage advice for St. Catharines’ gardeners and perhaps even some who do not yet garden but might take it up ‒ just to save bees. It’s that serious. Bees facing the fight of their lives.
Miriam and her Brock research team recently published their study of bee populations living in a landfill-turned-nature park in St. Catharines. Apparently, it’s much like the Field of Dreams scenario; remember the movie ‒ “Build it and they will come.” In this case, we are talking bees here not baseball players, and the idea rather is to “restore it and they will come.” But, beware because they won’t stay long if conditions are not just right.
The professor of biology and her team set up 30 bee traps for their study in 2003, when a former landfill located near the University reopened to the public as the Glenridge Quarry Naturalization site.
Between 2003 and 2013, the research team collected and recorded the number of bees and number of species that they trapped, and compared the amount to traps set in three sites at Brock that had not been restored.
Yes, the good news is that the numbers of individual bees and bee species in the Glenridge Quarry Naturalization site went up, at first. Restored foraging and nesting sites were re-occupied by bees as soon as they became available, and bee numbers continued to grow for three to four years, says the study with the rather long title, “Rapid initial recovery and long-term persistence of a bee community in a former landfill” published recently in the journal Insect Conservation and Diversity.
My guess is that this journal is not on your reading list. But, be aware that after initial growth, bee populations and species at the restored site declined from 2007 onward. Meanwhile, bee populations at the unrestored land sites continued to decline from 2003 onward.
Richards claims that the principal reasons for the population decline are the destruction of bee habitat, the increased use of pesticides and the impacts of climate change. “This is very, very frightening. I try not to think about it. It gives me a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach,” she laments.
What we should appreciate is that bees are central to the world’s food supply and the stability of the ecosystem. Classified as pollinators, bees fertilize plants by transferring pollen and seeds from one flower to another. Without this transfer, many crops and other plants would quickly die off.
Wild bees perform much of this pollination function. Richards’ research, headquartered in the alliterative Brock Bee Lab, focuses on the ecology and behaviour of wild bees, particularly carpenter bees and sweat bees.
Sweat bees? Yup. The Halictidae is the second largest family of Apoidea bees, usually dark-colored and often metallic in appearance. Several species are all or partly green and a few are red; a number of them have yellow markings, especially the males, which commonly possess yellow faces, a pattern widespread among the various families of bees. They are commonly referred to as “sweat bees” (especially the smaller species), as they are often attracted to perspiration. They are likely to sting only if disturbed; the sting is minor. Don’t sweat it, eh.
Richards advice for those who want to increase bee numbers is, “Plant a lot of flowers, shrubs and flowering trees; don’t mulch everything in your garden because they can’t nest on the ground if there’s too much mulch; create nooks and crannies for nesting by leaving dead, hollowed-out stems. A little bit of wildness is beautiful.”
She advises against placing beehives in yards, saying that competition from a large number of honey bees in the small space of a yard will crowd out wild bees’ food sources, causing a decline in the wild bee population. Honey bees, introduced to North America centuries ago, are considered “domesticated” because they produce a food product, says Richards.
Russian author Leo Tolstoy, said, “One can no more approach people without love than one can approach bees without care. Such is the quality of bees…” So, be forewarned. Next spring, follow Miriam Richards suggestions and cultivate some bees!
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