Ken Lehman has noticed a lot of bees in his yard this spring — but appearances can be deceiving.
As the City of Red Deer’s parks ecological services operations co-ordinator, Lehman knows wide-ranging studies have found bee populations are on the decline across North America and the world.
“Whether we see more bees or less bees is subjective,” he added. It can depend on what time of day you are outside, what kind of things you grow in your garden — even whether can tell a native bee species, which is not always easy to identify since most don’t resemble those rotund yellow-and-black European honeybees. “They can range from two millimetres to two inches long.”
To come up with a better sense of how many different kinds of these little pollinators are flying around Red Deer, the city has launched a two-year research study with Red Deer Polytechnic and other entomology experts.
When it concludes later this year, Lehman said it should establish a bee baseline for this region, showing what species are here now — which is needed to evaluate future fluctuations in bee types and numbers.
Through some bee-trapping efforts, researchers are seeing plenty of diversity: Lehman said there are about 300 different species of native bees in the province, with many of these buzzing around in our area.
“But there are a lot of things we don’t know,” he explained.
One question that set the study in motion is whether increasing citizen demand for more urban beekeeping is taking a toll on native bees? A recent study by Concordia University indicates it does. It found an increase in beekeeping activity in the Montreal area is negatively affecting the region’s more than 150 species of wild bees that are needed to pollinating local flora.
Lehman said the European honeybees brought in for honey production tend to out-compete native bees. These imported species can forage for longer distances compared to smaller wild bees, which tend to have narrow ranges, making them more vulnerable to competition.
As a result of the Concordia study, the City of Red Deer has put a moratorium on expanding urban beekeeping until more information is available.
On a worldwide scale, broader studies show that climate change is also doing a number on native bees by mixing up their pollination schedules, Lehman added. When certain plants flower earlier than usual because of warming trends, bees “may not get what they need,” compared to when weather is more seasonal, he said, since “some bees like it cold.”
Bees are not Alberta’s only pollinator species — although they shoulder much of the responsibility, Lehman said some wasps, flies and moths also pollinate. He believes these are “keystone” species, a bellwether for the environment, so “protecting them protects many other organisms.”
To find out what kind of garden plants to grow that can attract bees, please visit reddeer.ca and look for Be a Pollinator Pal, or Pollinator Parks.