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GOLDS: Still waiting the buzz of bees this spring

On recent walks around my neighbourhood, it has been delightful to finally see a few spring blossoms with bright colours that contrast with the well-watered greenery.

On recent walks around my neighbourhood, it has been delightful to finally see a few spring blossoms with bright colours that contrast with the well-watered greenery.

But on sunny days, when I listen for the drone of bees buzzing around the flowers, I worry that I hear so very few.

At this time of year, bumblebees should be awakening from their winter hibernation and hovering over flowers with ravenous appetites. While there have been some newspaper stories about the plight and plummeting populations of honeybees, the equally disturbing disappearance of our native bees seems not to merit as much attention.

Worldwide, there are estimated to be up to 40,000 species of bees, which, for the most part, are all important pollinators of flower-producing plants, the process of fertilization by which these plants can produce their seeds and fruits. While bees are the most important pollinators, other insects such as some species of flies, beetles, ants, wasps, butterflies and moths have also evolved as pollinators of certain types of flowers. In addition to insects, tropical bats, several bird species - including all the hummingbirds - and even a mouse or two also assist in plant pollination.

Still, bees are the true workhorses when it comes to providing pollination services.

Pollination is an extremely important ecosystem function because much of the food we and most other animals eat comes from flowering plants. Without the critical pollination services of these insects, we would have no fruit and very few vegetables. In fact, we would be left with little more to eat than the wind-pollinated grains and fish from the ocean.

Even the meat in our diets ultimately depends on bees because pollination is required to produce the clover and alfalfa fed to farm animals.

Because the production of cotton also requires pollination by bees, our closets as well as our stomachs would be quite empty without their efforts. Clearly, we should be paying far more attention to these proverbial busy - but disappearing - bees.

Honeybees are not native to the Americas but were brought here by early Europeans settlers who loved the sweet honey these bees produce in such copious quantities. Before the arrival of honeybees (some of which then escaped domestication and became feral), the American continents were already replete with more than 4,000 species of bees, wasps and ants, all of which play vital roles in the pollination of native flowering plants. Much of the wildlife in this hemisphere ultimately depends on these insects to provide their food.

These bee species included colonial nesting bees such as bumblebees and solitary nesting bees such as the mason, sweat and underground (mining) bees. It's the bumblebees that I am missing amongst my garden flowers right now.

With their hairy bodies and ability to regulate their temperature, bumblebees have evolved to be able to live in cold weather in temperate climates around most parts of the world. There are even two species of bumblebees found north of the Arctic Circle.

This time of year, it is the larger bumblebee queens that emerge from winter hibernation sites in the ground. They are the sole survivors of their species because all the other bumblebees - i.e., the workers, drones and old queens - died last fall. Fuelled by nectar from early blooming flowers, these surviving queens must quickly find an appropriate nest site and lay an initial set of eggs to begin their cycle of life anew. They also need to gather pollen, a highly nutritious food consisting of up to 30% protein and 10% fat, as food for their first cluster of eight to 10 eggs.

Queen bumblebees seek out nest sites on the ground in grassy meadows, ideally in the abandoned nest of a meadow mouse. Thus, while most suburban yards have little to offer bumblebees in terms of nesting habitat, other places such as the fields of Colony Farm Regional Park in Coquitlam provide ideal sites for them.

The queen creates a honeypot at the front end of her nest on which she will feed during rainy weather. Beneath her, in a clump of pollen, she will lay her eggs and incubate them with her body heat. Within a month, these eggs will hatch into larvae, which will eat the pollen, pupate and emerge as adult worker bees. These workers will then assume feeding and foraging duties to allow the queen to focus on laying more eggs.

Thus, as bumblebee colonies grow in size over the summer, bumblebees should become a more common sight in our yards as the season progresses.

The reasons that might explain why bees are in dramatic population declines will have to be the topic of another column. In the meantime, watch for occasional glimpses of bumblebees and the soon-to-appear mason bees. Truly, they are some of our most significant harbingers of spring.

Elaine Golds is a Port Moody environmentalist who is vice-president of Burke Mountain Naturalists, chair of the Colony Farm Park Association and past president of the PoMo Ecological Society.