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Monique Keiran: A glimmer of hope for vanishing bees

This insect can recognize human faces. It can outsmart supercomputers in solving complex mathematical problems. When it’s ill, it self-medicates.

This insect can recognize human faces. It can outsmart supercomputers in solving complex mathematical problems. When it’s ill, it self-medicates. It communicates through whole-body sign language that involves dance and orientation to both the sun and the insect’s home. It can even sniff out explosives from kilometres away.

And while it’s doing all that, this insect helps to feed most of the world’s human population.

This smart little worker, the bee, is disappearing.

The mysterious collapses of honey-bee colonies, first documented eight years ago, continue. The declines affect not only the familiar, beloved honeybee, but wild bee species, too.

This is especially worrying, as recent research on more than 40 crop systems in more than 20 countries indicates wild bees may be more important than the hard-working honeybee for crop pollination and food production. Honeybees are one among about 20,000 bee species, and while honeybees do their bit to turn flowers into the fruit, vegetables, nuts and seeds that feed many of the world’s warm-blooded animals, the study shows honeybees only supplement wild-bee efforts.

Many theories exist as to why bees are suffering. Scientists have pointed to pesticide use, disease, climate change, habitat loss due to urban sprawl and intensive agriculture, and competition by invasive species. But, to date, no definitive cause or combination of causes has been identified.

Two small bright spots exist in this rather dismal picture, however.

The first is that the importance of bees to food crops and the health of the planet is now officially recognized, at least here in B.C. Lt.-Gov. Judith Guichon has proclaimed this coming Wednesday the Day of the Honeybee.

The other ray of sunshine is that one bee species seems to be flying against the downward trend. Scientists from B.C. Environment, the Royal B.C. Museum and Simon Fraser University report that the agriculturally important yellow-faced bumblebee is actually increasing its range in southern B.C.

Known for decades from only a handful of specimens from Osoyoos, this bumblebee was long a prime candidate for a threatened- or endangered-species listing for its restricted range.

Now, however, the bee pollinates wildflowers and crops throughout the South Okanagan and Similkameen valleys. It works hard along the south coast and throughout the Fraser Valley. And here on Vancouver Island, where it was first spotted at Prospect Lake only in 2005, it now ranges from Victoria to the Comox Valley.

The yellow-faced bumblebee is currently one of the most common bumblebees found in many of these areas.

What brought about this bee’s change in status and importance? The researchers suggest a number of possibilities. The spread of this species coincides with the decline of the western bumblebee, so the yellow-faced bee might be filling a rich niche lying open for the taking. Escapees from colonies kept by farmers probably facilitated this. In Washington, farmers frequently use colonies of yellow-faced bumblebees to pollinate berry, peach, plum, cherry and cabbage crops, and bees frequently make their escape from captive colonies.

The bee’s biology might have helped, as well. The yellow-faced bumblebee produces large colonies — one documented colony produced 650 queens. The bee also boasts greater-than-usual genetic diversity, which would enable increased resistance to diseases and greater adaptability to new and changing environments.

Changes in agriculture might also contribute. The B.C. cranberry industry has expanded in recent years, with more than 1,000 hectares under cultivation in the Fraser Valley and on the Island. The yellow-faced bee is known to hang around cranberry fields in Oregon.

However, no reports of recent pollinator introductions exist, and cran-berries aren’t grown in the Interior. The scientists suggest climate change might have spurred the bee’s range expansion there.

Perhaps the bee’s success is due to a combination of these factors.

Whatever the reason, it is some welcome news. It offers local farmers some hope in the face of honeybee declines.

We now have cause to do a wee bee-dance of our own on May 29.