Monday, June 28, 2010

A Bumblebee Workshop

I attended a bumblebee workshop on the weekend. Our session leader was Sheila Colla, a grad student at York University and an internationally known expert on North American bumblebees. The event was held at the Evergreen Brick Works, a unique, re-naturalized habitat and education center in Toronto, Canada.

Right: Sheila Colla uses a plastic vial to trap a bumblebee for observation.

The workshop dealt with the life history and biology of bumblebees. And we heard about the pollination services these fuzzy, black-and-yellow bees provide. Colla placed particular emphasis on the decline of a number of key bumblebee species in Eastern North America, in particular that of the the Rusty-patched Bumblebee, now on the edge of extinction. In fact it was Colla's own research that demonstrated beyond doubt the sad situation of this once common species.

Our workshop leader provided a handy guide to the color patterns of some of the most common local species. She also gave us the opportunity to view museum specimens so that we could see just what the diagrams referred to on real bees.

Then the best treat of all. Colla led us out into the field, to patches of wildflowers in the surrounding area. She pointed out several species, including the Two-spotted Bumblebee and the Red-belted Bumblebee.

We were shown a clever technique that anyone can try. Colla was able to place a plastic medicine vial beneath a bumblebee busily foraging on a flower and then quickly pop the cap on, trapping the bee inside. It was easy for all of us to examine the living specimen, harmlessly confined for a few minutes, while Colla pointed out the identifying characteristics. Once the demonstration was over, the bee was released to go back about its business of pollination.

The workshop was part of the celebration of International Pollinator Week, 2010. Sheila Colla is co-author of a new field guide to bumblebees, expected to appear later this summer. I'll be one of the first to start using it as soon as it's available.

You can learn more about Colla and her work on her website:

Friday, June 25, 2010

We Need The Bumblebee

Last evening, in Toronto, a swinging group called the 'Raging Grannies' gave the world premiere performance of a new song about bumblebees. The 'Grannies' had the audience at a 'Pollinator Cabaret' held at the Gladstone Hotel clapping time and singing along - they brought the house down. The event was held in celebration of International Pollinator Week.

With the hope that others will sing in praise of the bumblebee this Pollinator Week, here are the complete lyrics of the new song:

We Need The Bumblebee
(to the tune of The Blue-tail Fly)
Words by Dave Barr

The winds, the woods, the skies are free
The world of earth and the world of sea
There's fruit in the garden for you and me
But not without the bumblebee

People need fruit and veggies too
People need fruit and veggies too
People need fruit and veggies too
We need the bumblebee

Each bloom in the garden is colored fine
Each smells so good upon the vine
To spread some pollen both far and wide
It calls the bumblebee inside


The bumblebee's got pretty hair
With black and yellow stripes so fair
She carries baskets on each flight
To pack the pollen in real tight


The fruit comes from the flow'r you see
That's healthy food for you and me
Flow'rs need pollen so the fruit can grow
The bumble's visit makes it so


The bee starts early on her run
Before the world warms in the sun
She gathers nectar and pollen food
Takes them home to feed her brood


The bumble's home is in the ground
An empty mouse nest she has found
She raises daughters who can't wait
To help her fly and pollinate


Poor bumblebee she's under threat
We hit her with the worst things yet
Disease and nasty pesticides
And take her habitat besides

[skip Chorus]

8. (slowly)
We've got to save the bumblebee
Her fate is linked to us you see
We need her flight from flow'r to flow'r
To save our food with pollen power!
(last two words shouted out)


[Words Copyleft (Ɔ) by Dave Barr, 2010: Creative Commons Licence. Image from a photo by D. Barr]

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

'Keeping The Bees' by Laurence Packer

Laurence Packer is a bee biologist whose research and teaching base of operations is at York University in Toronto, Canada.

The title of his book, and much of the publicity that has surrounded it suggest that it is about something that many of us have heard a lot about already - the one-two punch of the central role of bees in human food production followed by the spectre of colony collapse disorder and a world without bees. And it is about these things, in part. But this book is so much more.

Unlike many of his contemporaries writing on the same topic, Packer can offer a broad overview of his subject. His global perspective is derived from years of working with many different kinds of bees, hands-on work, observing behavior and biology in the field.

This book is actually a biology of bees, from the tiniest solitary bees to communal, semisocial and eusocial species. It is a biology in the grand tradition of Jean Henri Fabre, the 19th century French polymath whose books introduced the world to the engaging lives of insects.

Bumblebees play a leading role in Packer's narrative. He touches on everything from their life history, to their social behavior and their diseases, parasites and predators. Packer tells us why bumblebees (and indeed all bees) appear to be at greater risk of extinction than other organisms, a topic I'll be expanding on in a future entry in this blog.

Packer isn't afraid to introduce us to some of the specialized terminology that goes along with his field of study (a bee biologist, for instance, is a melittologist). But in general he works hard to keep his story in everyday language. He has a tremendous knack for making even the most complex subjects understandable in human terms. Bees that maintain a communal nest burrow system are just like human condo dwellers, he tells us, with a common entrance and private apartments.

Those who are looking for fresh evidence that we need bees and that bees are endangered will find it here. And there is also advice for those who want to do something to help bees, including the completely original and delightful suggestion of walking on the grass.

Shortcomings? Well, pictures for one. The book has a few photos, but publication costs aside, it could have had so much more. The bee image on the dust jacket is truly unfortunate - a nice bee, but the graphic treatment is not my favorite. But then Packer is writing in the tradition of the great naturalist-authors like Fabre, Willy Ley and Howard Evans. Like these masters in whose company Packer now finds himself, his vivid language alone is enough to create compelling images of his fascinating subjects in every reader's mind.

'Keeping The Bees'
is a must read for any fan of bumblebees.

Bug of The Week

Debbie Hadley, who writes about insects for, has featured a bumblebee this week in honor of National (and International) Pollinator Week.

She nominates a different insect each week for the the prestigious title of "Bug of The Week." The lucky insect starts out as an unknown and Debbie's readers are asked to do their best to identify it. A week later she reveals the insect's name and provides another unknown.

Readers of this blog will have no difficulty recognizing this week's "bug" as a bumblebee. But which one? I don't want to spoil the suspense, so please go to Debbie's bug-of-the-week page, check out her clues, and try your hand at the identification. In a week's time, when Debbie gives the answers to her readers, the solution will be reported here as well.

Have fun.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Bee Briefs: Recent News About Bumblebees

Join the Global Bee Project and become a Bee Guardian!

International Pollinator Week is coming, June 21-27

Citizen scientists begin 4th year of the Great Pollinator Project, a sort of bee census, in New York City. They monitor some 200 species of bees to study pollinator biodiversity

Regicide and captive virgin queens; 10 things you might not know about the fascinating lives of bees

Researcher developing landscape conservation & restoration guidelines for preservation of native bee populations

BeeWalk to help monitor changes in bumblebee populations; invaluable for conservation

New Zealand Short-haired Bumblebees in restoration project die in hibernation, just before travelling to the UK

Two new bumblebee species settle in Iceland These both appear to be on the move from Europe.

The Tree Bumblebee continues its range expansion in the UK; now in west Wales

Now more bumblebee nests in UK cities, towns and suburbs than in the countryside - that's bad news for wildlife

You can buy black-and-yellow striped socks and help protect bumblebees

[Photo by Brieg, CC License]

Friday, June 4, 2010

A bee or not a bee?

Our title today comes from Chapter 4 of Laurence Packer's new book, 'Keeping The Bees.'

Packer writes about the numerous 'wannabees,' the non-stinging insects that derive protection by looking like dangerous species that can sting. The photo on the right shows the hoverfly, Merodon equestris, pursuing its meal of nectar on a flower of Scabiosa and looking for all the world like some kind of bumblebee.

This kind of mimicry is referred to by evolutionary biologists as Batesian mimicry, named after the English naturalist, William Henry Bates.

The Greater Bulb Fly in the photo is a vegetarian with no sting. Its larvae feed on the roots of garden bulbs like the Narcissus. And the adults, as noted, are flower visitors, subsisting on nectar and pollen. They have no defense against insect-feeding predators like birds. But bumblebees can sting, and birds have learned to leave them alone, or suffer the consequences.

Packer provides a vivid description of the situation of an insectivorous bird. After invoking memories of the pain of a bee sting he writes, "Imagine what it would be like for a small bird or a small mammal to receive the same amount of venom in the tongue or the roof of the mouth... Having attempted to catch a bee to feed its [nestlings] the stung parent [bird] would likely be incapable of catching anything else for a long time. There is a good chance its brood would starve to death while its parent recovered."

Reason enough to avoid anything that looks remotely like a bumblebee. And thus, the harmless hoverfly is allowed to go safely about its business, protected by the fact that it only looks dangerous.

[Photo copyright D. Barr]


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