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U of C the ‘bee’s knees’ when it comes to pollinator biodiversity

By Rachneet Randhawa, June 25 2021—

Did you know the University of Calgary is a certified Bee City Canada Campus? The Bee Campus Designation and Bee campus profile is committed to creating an environment that supports native pollinator populations — that’s right, our campus community is pollinator friendly. 

Recently a Digital Bee Collection has been launched at the University of Calgary, a collaborative project between the Faculty of Science, Department of Biological Sciences, Department of Mechanical Engineering and the Libraries and Cultural Resources (LCR). It is a curated and digital collection of native Albertan bee species now available to researchers and bee lovers across the globe. 

Together the interdisciplinary team digitized 230 different species of native Alberta bees, launched a biodiversity website and hosted a pollinator celebration. It was also one of the recipients of the 2021 Sustainability Awards and aims to enhance public education and understanding of the importance of bee conservation on agricultural and urban landscapes by demonstrating a commitment to protecting pollinators.

The BeeASmartCity is a project headed by Dr. Mindi Summers, who is an ecology and evolutionary instructor in biological sciences. It generates biodiversity visualizations and showcases high-resolution digital photographs of native bees that will allow users to explore and identify biodiversity in their city and access resources related to bio-inspired urban design and planning. The Gauntlet sat down for an interview with Summers to learn more about the exciting new initiative.

The Digital Bee Collection project emphasizes the United Nations 11th Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) of sustainable cities and communities. 

“Our work was really trying to advance how we think about sustainability, particularly in urban environments, and how we can integrate nature, and particularly thinking about bees and pollinators into urban landscapes,” said Summers. “An important component of sustainability is understanding biodiversity both in terms of animal pollinators, including insects, as well as the plants that they pollinate.” 

Summers also mentioned that there are close to 400 different species of bees native to Alberta. 

“A lot of times when you talk to people, the first thing they think of is a honeybee,” said Summers. “And so part of doing this digital collection was an opportunity to expose people to all of the other bees that we share our province with.” 

There are different types of pollination too — not just from our fellow furry insects and creatures but also from the wind. Summers said that examples of wind-pollinated plants include many carnivorous or coniferous plants. 

“A lot of our cereals and grains are also wind-pollinated,” said Summers.” But a lot of the foods on our plates that are bright colours are fruits that are pollinated by animal pollinators.” 

And it goes even more in-depth — certain crops require specific types of pollination so there’s not exactly a one-size-fits-all solution for pollinating plants. One type of pollination, called buzz pollination, is a vibration that the bees are using as they approach the flower.

“For example, tomatoes require a special type of pollination,” explained Summers. “It’s called buzz pollination, typically from bumblebees. And so they require bumble bees to kind of buzz near them to be able to release the pollen.” 

And then you have the diversity of bee species itself — everything from pollen collecting organs and adapting behaviours to the size and shape of the bees tongues. Many bees have a special pollen-collecting structure almost like a big bag of pollen on their hind legs which is called a ”bikila” in which pollen is stored. Whether a bee is an effective pollinator depends on a variety of factors. For instance, different types of flower shapes and how deep or shallow the flowers concern the length of the bee’s tongue.

But what makes the bumblebee’s pollination the bees’ knees anyways? What sets bees apart from other insects which pollinate? For one, they are the most proactive out of other insects. 

“Bees can be more effective pollinators for some plants because many bees will specialize in certain types of flowers, or when they go out foraging for flowers,” said Summers. “They will go to the same types of flowers on a foraging trip — so that means that they’re moving pollen between flowers of the same species, which is helpful for reproduction as well versus other pollinators that might visit lots of different plants that just lowers the probability that pollen is going to make it to the same point.”

According to National Geographic bumblebees are going extinct due to climate change. Lately, you may be wondering why not only bumblebees but native species alike are becoming an endangered species. 

“One of the major ways that pollinators are affected is by habitat loss,” said Summers. “A second way is that they are affected by the application of pesticides and other types of chemicals that might be applied to those crops.” 

But there is hope. One solution to this is “pollinator corridors,” or areas of a habitat that interspersed the landscape. These are safe havens with native flowers and mowed or undisturbed ground which enables bees to prosper and survive. This provides for huge economic and sustainability benefits by leaving space for natural areas to build strong, diverse pollinator communities.

The City of Calgary has one of the highest numbers of species of bumblebees as we live in a bee hotspot in terms of bee diversity, according to Summers. Yet there are still common misperceptions on where bees come from and what exactly they do. For instance, what many don’t realize is that honeybees are an agricultural animal, or managed population, and require humans to care for them to stay alive and are not native to Alberta, let alone Canada. 

 Have you ever asked yourself what’s on your plate and how it got there? When asked why bees and their pollination are lifesavers, especially for food security, Summers said that bees help to produce between one fifth and one third of the food on your plate. If bees were to disappear, there would be drastic consequences to our diets. 

“We’d probably be dealing with some nutrient deficiency issues because we get a lot of our diverse vitamins from plants that are pollinated by insect pollinators, and other animal pollinators.”

 One of the ways students can get more involved in learning more about the Digital Bee Collection project is to check out Pollinator Week which kicks off on June 21. Here, you can get involved in fun and engaging activities, like the pollinator count where you can participate in a timed count by finding a flower of interest whether in your backyard, garden or any park in the city. The idea is to watch it for up to 10 minutes and count all the pollinators that come and visit it — you can even snap some pictures of pollinators of plants. 

“Our Calgary pollinator count is something that you can do any time of the year from early spring to fall,” said Summers. “So it’s not just that one week, we are very interested in collecting information on pollinator diversity throughout the whole season. And that would be one great way to get involved in the project.” 

To get more involved in sustainability-led bee initiatives, Summers recommends taking courses through the Department of Biological Sciences to learn more about plants and animals and how they connect to sustainability and conservation or even doing a certificate in sustainability studies. 

Interested in learning more about all things bee related? Check out the Calgary Pollinator Count Summer 2021 Pilot, an initiative by faculty and student researchers at the University of Calgary in partnership with the Office of Sustainability. UCalgary’s Pollinator Week runs from June 21-25 with many buzzworthy virtual events, everything from Bee-free and Unwind with the Graduate Students’ Association (GSA), to Pollinator Trivia and putting your artistic abilities to the test with a Skribilio session. Check out the UCalgary Sustain Instagram for more information. Keep calm and Happy Pollinator Week!

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