Not the only bees in town

Hunt’s Bumble Bee (Bombus huntii), Calgary. (Miksha)

Although my life has centred on honey bees, I realize that they are not the only bee species in town. Here in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, we have about 200 species of bees – from giant bumble bees to rather petite sweat bees. Most have specific roles in our city’s ecology, pollinating wildflowers that few other insects visit.

Our local wild bees include over a dozen species of bumble bees. Through my research (investigating how honey bees and native bees interact), I learned to appreciate bumble bees for a lot of reasons, including their precarious lifecycle – a mated queen hibernates alone for seven or eight wintery months, emerges to find a home in the spring, lays a few dozen eggs (caring for the first batch by herself), then lays the eggs that become drones as well as next year’s queens before she dies in late summer). Anywhere along the way, the chain might be broken, the bee nest doomed.

Bumble bees aren’t tidy housekeepers. (Miksha)

Although the bumble bee lifecycle is insecure, we delight in seeing the husky bees affably buzzing among the flowers. Bumble bees look so clean and tidy that we are surprised by their unkempt nests with bits of leaf, seed, dead bees, and haphazardly strewn nectar and brood cell cups. (Bumble bees are messy housekeepers!)

Working with bumble bees, we also discover that they almost never sting while working away from their hive. However, they are indignant and persistent defenders when their homes are disturbed. I’ve been stung by bumble bees dozens of times while digging into nests during my research. They mostly strike eyes and lips, sting multiple times without losing stingers, and don’t respond to smoke. I find that their stings, while persistently striking an offender, have only about half the pain impact of honey bee stings, and a quarter that of wasps. Your own experience may vary.

A University of Calgary student, Tobyn Neame and their supervisor, Dr. Mindi Summers, have produced an excellent field guide of the various species of bumble bees in Calgary. Along with my suggestions and some data, the artwork of Sarah Ritchie and Tobyn Neame, and the contributions of taxonomist Lincoln Best (who can identify the species and sex of any local pollinator flying on its way to a meadow), the team produced a valuable book about bumble bees.

Reduced-size sample page from the bumble bee field guide by Tobyn Neame, Sarah Ritchie, and Mindi Summers

Even if you are not in the Calgary area, you will be enchanted by this field book’s information and artistry. The easy-to-use guide details locating, photographing, and identifying bumble bees. Many of these Calgary bumble bees also reside across the North American west, the prairies, and mountainous areas – so the guide’s utility stretches beyond our city. If your own environment does not include any of the species highlighted here, you may consider creating a similar book for your own community: Tobyn Neame’s work will inspire your effort.

Download your own free copy of this brilliant field guide here.

About Ron Miksha

Ron Miksha is a bee ecologist working at the University of Calgary. He is also a geophysicist and does a bit of science writing and blogging. Ron has worked as a radio broadcaster, a beekeeper, and Earth scientist. (Ask him about seismic waves.) He's based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
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8 Responses to Not the only bees in town

  1. The book looks lovely – have downloaded it and will read it properly. It will be interesting to see if we have any of those bumblebees here in East Sussex, England. We have had several nest close by, and I’ve put up a couple of suitable homes for them (but they have rejected them so far 😦 But my bee hotels are popular with the solitary bees. It’s interesting to see how they share the space with our honey bees – our honeybees doesn’t seem to spend much time in our garden, while the bumblebees are up early and go to bed late, and dominates in our garden. Our honeybees seem to fly off into the nearby forest, and far away to the adjacent fields.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Ron Miksha says:

      Thanks, we are quite happy with the book. It has a lot of use beyond its intended Calgary audience.
      Thanks also for your observations. We have a similar situation here in Calgary. Our honey bees seem to leave the city for their forage, with a few exceptions. Honey bees prefer masses of single-species flowers (of the right size, shape, colour, and sugar concentration) found by scouts. On rare occasions, they investigate backyard gardens. When they do, we know that things aren’t going well for the hive. Bumble bees have a much shorter flight range and are willing to work multiple species on a single flight, so they are often seen in backyards.


  2. Ingrid says:

    I have also downloaded the book and just started reading it. It’s beautiful, thank you for sharing it.
    I am on an acreage outside of High River. I have two honey bee hives, but I plan my gardens around the native bees and let most of the pasture grow wild. Usually, several species are abundant right up until first frost, and closer to the house, they congregate on the spirea, liatris, marigolds and the entire vegetable patch when I let it go to flower in August. HOwever, I have not seen a single wild bee (not even one – and I only repeat that because it sounds like an exaggeration) since our heatwave in July. Have we lost them permanently?

    Liked by 2 people

    • Ron Miksha says:

      Thanks, you will find the book very useful – if the bumble bee population recovers.

      We have not lost the wild bees forever, but the heat and drought have been disastrous for them this year.

      Climate change is probably pushing out some species (the ones that need a slightly cooler climate to thrive), so we will likely see some changes. Bees that are better adapted to warmer weather may replace them.
      If we have several cool wet summers, the wild bees may repopulate, but that depends on what the weather does.


  3. Thank You for sharing this Informative Blog.I hope that you will share more blog in Future. As you love to write about beekeeping so i would like to share you this awesome educative website “WikiBeekeeping”.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Hi Ron, A friend has just announced her decision to introduce a couple of Nucs to her farm next year and starting extra plants to prevent any negative effect on feeding her Native Bees, which sent me looking for results on your recent work, where I found a CBC News Calgary article from June – info from Monty Kruger’s piece with Sean Higgins of ‘Alvéole’ with the Sarah Moore interview about your research on competition between Bee Species… (Calgary’s moving toward population densities of close to “eight or ten honeybee colonies per square kilometre”? OMG, that’s just nuts!)
    But, when you mentioned the possibility of passing Deformed Wing Virus (DWV) from Honey Bees to Native Species, it reminded me of something that’s been niggling the back of my mind for quite awhile… I have been observing a much higher prevalence in the occurrence of DWV in the Wasp Species in our gardens for years now – but markedly so more recently – and couldn’t help but wonder about a correspondence with the increased use of NeoNicotinoids in surrounding farm fields. Wondering if you’ve ever looked at that possibility?
    Anyway, this morning I started looking along that line and came across a “summary of an important scientific study by Di Prisco et al examining how low doses of neonicotinoids impair immunity to diseases and viruses such as DWV, in honey bees.” Food for thought?


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