Researchers generate a buzz around wild bees

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SFU biology professor Elizabeth Elle and PhD student of biology Kyle Bobiwash are currently studying Lower Mainland and Fraser Valley pollinators in order to help conserve the bee population and improve how they are used in agricultural practices.

The two are especially interested in gathering information on wild bees, a species that is often left out of farmers’ consideration due to the lack of research that has been conducted on them.

Due to increased pesticide use, there has been a recent decline in the bee population in North America. As Bobiwash explained, farmers often “only think of the crop and not at all [about] the free services we get from the bees.” Bees spend their time pollinating the crops we eat every day, creating honey, and ensuring that a large variety of foods continue to exist.

In order for bees to continue to survive in our changing agricultural landscape, many researchers, including Elle, feel that harmful practices need to be changed.

Of special interest to the duo is a particular Abbotsford farm, which has a unique partnership with their black and yellow striped friends. Most farms, Elle explained, rely on the purchase of honeybee colonies to pollinate their crops.

Often, farmers will use two honeybee colonies per acre, with each colony costing them as much as $100. This farm in Abbotsford, however, is entrusting care of their crops to wild bees alone.

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These wild bees, most of which are wild bumblebees, not only help free of charge, but are also often better pollinators than their expensive counterparts.

At SFU, Elle and Bobiwash are working towards understanding which pollinators are important to different crops, what the species diversity has to do with the area and farm system in place, and how it all relates to the farm’s landscape and the pesticides it uses.

From this, they hope to enhance wild bee populations by creating alternative food and nesting sources for them, including ‘bee pastures’ to sustain them when crops are no longer in season. These pastures are areas of land planted with flowers where bees have access to nourishment in colder months.

The two also plan to inform people of the key significance wild bees hold in our agricultural practices, and how we should be managing our lands if we want our practices to be sustainable in the long run.

BC has approximately 450 different species of wild pollinators, and the goal is to ensure they all have as much assistance as possible, so that they might, in turn, assist us.

This is a multifaceted project, explained the two, both at SFU and throughout the province in general; it is a project that will not happen overnight. However, there are ways people can encourage wild bee population sustainment and growth: The simple act of putting a pot out on your deck or balcony can provide food for a passing bee, who in turn might pollinate a plant in your vegetable garden.

As Elle said, “When you provide food for the bees, they provide food for us.”

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