Canadian bee researchers fear climate change's effects on wild bees

The bumblebee is one of 300 species of bees found in Alberta.  (York University/CBC - image credit)
The bumblebee is one of 300 species of bees found in Alberta. (York University/CBC - image credit)

With a changing climate, Canadian researchers say there could be further struggles ahead for a beleaguered pollinator, the bee.

"We have all sorts of wild bees, bumblebees and mason bees, leafcutter bees and about 300 different species of different bees inside of Alberta alone," said Ron Miksha, a bee researcher at the University of Calgary.

With climate change, those insects are believed to be in trouble.

"It is getting hotter. There is a climate change going on which is making it difficult, particularly for bumblebees — because bumblebees are a colder climate type of insect," Miksha said.

Colette Shellian
Colette Shellian

Shelley Hoover, a research associate at the University of Lethbridge's department of biological sciences, says climate change has a host of effects on pollinators.

One is phenology, climate change's effect on the timing of when things are happening, Hoover said.

"Warming is just one aspect of climate change, of course, but we see sort of a timing mismatch between when different species are active," she said.

That impacts things like when plants are blooming, which means food might not be available at the right time for pollinators.

The second one is changes in species' ranges, Hoover said, as climates in local areas become unsuitable, plants will stop growing in that area, again starving pollinators.

With climate change also comes severe weather events like frequent storms, flooding and hailstorms, which can kill insects.

Vincent Bonnay/Radio-Canada
Vincent Bonnay/Radio-Canada

Last winter, Canada had its largest honeybee colony loss in the past 20 years, according to preliminary data. A survey from Ernesto Guzman, president of the Canadian Association of Professional Apiculturists, which surveyed commercial beekeepers across the country, found that Alberta lost 51 per cent of its colonies.

How the honeybee population is faring can act as a good indicator or bellwether as to how wild bee species are faring, says University of British Columbia researcher Alison McAfee.

Wild species of bees are more difficult to observe than their managed counterpart, the honeybee, and wild bees don't have the same human support behind them, McAfee said.

"I would definitely say that wild bees are at greater risk of problems associated with climate change, purely because they don't have an industry behind them, they don't have a beekeeper looking out for them who can add insulation to their nests in the ground and that kind of thing," she said.

"I can't sort of blanketly say that all wild bees are more vulnerable. But by and large, I think they're at greater risk because … they don't have somebody looking out for them specifically."

And far less is known about wild bee populations compared with honeybees, McAfee said.

In addition to climate change, monoculture and increased herbicide use are also believed to be impacting the wild bee population.

"When people say they want to save the bees, they have a very legitimate concern," said Miksha.

He said people can address those concerns by advocating for cleaner communities, meaning less chemical use, less herbicides and more space for bees to pollinate, like green spaces in cities and parks.

"Places that just are not mowed are not dug up because those are the places that our native bees will find their native flowers and also habitat for making it through winter," he said.