Bees are a diverse group of insects. There are big bees, small bees, bees with stingers and bees without. Bet you can’t guess how many species of bees there are? Got your number? Globally there are about 20,000 bee species that have been described, with about 800 of those species being native to Canada!
It might be hard for us to tell one bee species apart from the next and that’s where scientists come in. By researching bees, we can learn more about each species and how we can better protect them.
Not all scientists research bees the same way. Some scientists work with wild bees, while other scientists work with managed bees. You may be wondering to yourself, “What makes a bee ‘managed’”? Well, they’re not sitting in offices with the title ‘manager’ on their desk…
Managed bees are bees that have some of their needs looked after by humans. These bees are usually used for agriculture (pollination) or for pollinator research. Non-native honey bees are the best known example of managed bees, but there are other kinds of managed bees in Canada such as the common Eastern bumble bee managed in greenhouses to pollinate tomatoes or solitary bees nesting in artificial nest boxes.
Honey bees are quite different from wild bees, but both are important pollinators. To learn more about managed and wild bees, we talked with some bee experts.
Where do the bees live?
Honey bees live in apiaries, which is a place where beekeepers put their bee colonies. Apiaries are made up of human-made wooden boxes (each box is a hive or colony) with vertical frames of honeycombs (hexagonal, or six sided, wax cells that hold the larvae, honey and pollen). These frames allow beekeepers to examine the colony. They can pull out the frames to remove honey or check how many bees are inside. The colonies can also be relocated easily because they are in boxes. It is easy for beekeepers to pick up the boxes and move them to a new location.
Wild bees often build their nests in the ground, in dead wood or other structures. The nests are often lined with mammal fur or soft plant material. Bumble bees will secrete wax from their abdomens and mix this with pollen to make the oval cells of their hive. Other bees, like carpenter bees, will chew through wood and the stems of plants to build their nests. Mason bees use mud or some other soft material to make their nests.
How many bees are in the colony?
Honey bee colonies can have as many as 50,000 bees.
Wild bees that are social, such as bumble bees and some sweat bees, live in nests that vary in size depending on the species and location of the nest. There may be as few as 10-20 workers in some colonies. In warmer climates, there can be up to several hundred workers in one nest! The number of workers depend how much food the bees can find. Most wild bees in Canada do not live in a colony though and do not have workers.
What do the bees need around them to survive?
Honey bees can survive in areas that have enough food in the form of nectar and pollen, as well as water and shelter. Luckily, their homes are provided for them so they don’t need to search for a place to nest. Beekeepers look for suitable areas for their apiaries that have a variety of flowering plants that blossom throughout the year. The apiary also needs to be accessible but far enough away from the public so that it won’t be disturbed.
Wild bees need enough food and water to survive. However, they don’t have their nesting sites provided for them, so they also have to look for areas that will make good homes and that have enough shelter from bad weather. For social bees, what makes a good nesting spot is up to the queen. She looks for a place that is easy to defend and safe from flooding. The nest also needs to be roomy enough for the colony to grow, but if the nest is too large it will be harder for the bees to stay warm and survive the winter. Sometimes wild bees will build their nests in old car seats, a rolled up carpet or in the insulation of an abandoned house.
What is beeeeing researched about bees?
Honey bees are Ph.D student Brock Harpur’s area of study. Brock is part of a research team at York University researching how a bee’s genes (genetic makeup) can affect its traits, like how they find food. For most of the year, the lab’s bees live naturally in their colonies. Once mid-summer hits, however, it’s time to start studying them. The researchers can breed the bees in different ways to understand how genes influence behaviour and bee health. Managed honey bees are perfect for this research because we know a lot about their habits and are easy to maintain.
Wild bees are Dr. Cory Sheffield’s area of study. Dr. Sheffield and his team at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum are studying wild bees, including the Western bumble bee, to see how they can be used more to pollinate tree fruit crops such as haskap and sour cherry. Traditionally, managed honey bees pollinated most of our food crops, but scientists are discovering new ways to better use wild bees as crop pollinators. It is important to have wild bees as food crop pollinators in addition to honey bees. Without them, we might not be able to produce enough food to feed everyone.
How often do researchers get stung?
Honey bee researcher at York University, Brock Harpur has been stung over 300 times. To reduce the number of stings he wears a face-protecting veil, moves slowly and cautiously, and pays attention to the “mood” of the colonies.
Wild bee expert, Dr. Sheffield, says he doesn’t get stung very often, which is surprising because he works with bees during the summer when they are most active. It is only when he is handling live bees that he might get stung. However, with practice it can be very easy to remove a bee from a net while avoiding getting a sting. It is important to note that only trained bee experts should handle bees.
Remember to leave the bee handling to the experts!
This is just the BEEginning of how awesome bees are. Make sure you check out these pages to learn more:
You can help bees by starting a Bring back the Wild campaign to protect the Western bumble bee.
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