Honeybee colonies are collapsing around the world, putting food production in danger. We may need Canada’s indigenous pollinators to save the day.
So much is familiar about this quintessentially contemporary Canadian landscape: the undulating tangle of restored tall grass prairie, the regimented corn rows that bound one side, yellowed and drying under a web of east–west power lines.
To the east lies the woolly green of Niagara’s hulking, protected escarpment; running almost parallel, a less imposing strip of sand-coloured big box stores (Costco, La-Z-Boy, Home Outfitters) that lines one of southern Ontario’s 400 series highways, among the busiest traffic corridors in North America. A crossroads, literally. Before Ancaster was amalgamated into the city of Hamilton, before it was a twee village of “olde shoppes” and pubs and subdivisions, before it became Upper Canada’s largest industrial and commercial centre (briefly overshadowing both Toronto and Hamilton), this was the intersection of the north–south Iroquois Trail and the east–west Mohawk Trail.
Among the dry September grasses of Ancaster’s sliver of prairie rehabilitation, goldenrod and purple asters nod and bow as the bees land on them.
Among the dry September grasses of Ancaster’s sliver of prairie rehabilitation, goldenrod and purple asters nod and bow as the bees land on them. Appearing and disappearing with the hum and stealth of Jedi knights, they work the flowers with a singleness of purpose, their tongues reaching deep to lap up the nectar as pollen collects on their legs and backs. A scene seen, but seldom noticed, a thousand times over.
Most of the bees in this meadow are neither wild nor native. They are domesticated honeybees, perhaps kept in hives by the owners of the monster home that stands in the distance, on the other side of the tidy cornfield. Sheila Colla, a newly minted melittologist who defended her Ph.D. a week earlier, is not looking for kept honeybees. Dressed in the moisture-wicking grey and green of Mountain Equipment Co-op, she is searching for wild bumblebees, specifically Bombus affinis, commonly known as the rusty-patched bumblebee. It was once the fourth most common bee in these parts. After catching and releasing yet another (still common) Bombus impatiens, she plants the handle of her butterfly net and sighs. “There are honeybees on every flower,” she says despairingly. “This is the worst.” With fe-line reflex, her brown arms swipe the net over another bumblebee as she detects its baritone.
For eight years now, Colla has spent her summers stalking the rusty-patched bumblebee in the tall grasses of southern Ontario. In 2012, it became the first bee to be listed as endangered in Canada, largely due to her research and the interest of Laurence Packer, her galumphing giant of a former supervisor, who runs one of the largest bee labs in the world, at York University in Toronto. Out in the field from April to October, she and her research assistants have captured just two specimens: one in 2005 and another in 2009, both in Pinery Provincial Park, on the shores of Lake Huron. This quite probably makes her the last person to have seen and caught the rusty-patched bumblebee in Canada.
Colla, who was a city girl until university (she grew up in a subdivision in Scarborough), found the last specimen perched on spotted knapweed, an invasive species, between one of Ontario’s dwindling oak savannahs and Lake Huron’s sand dunes. Now it is pinned and preserved for another generation of melittologists (entomologists who specialize in bees), in Packer’s 400,000-specimen collection. She felt no compunction about killing it. “It was a male,” she explains. “They’re pretty much useless. They just mate and die.” After a pause, she adds softly, “I would never kill a queen.” Bumblebee colonies, unlike those of honeybees, are annual; they die off in the fall. Only the inseminated queen overwinters, to start a new colony in the spring.