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Critically-endangered bee species found in Guelph highlights need for protections: local researcher

The Ontario government is currently conducting consultations for proposed changes to its Endangered Species Act

A critically endangered species of bumble bee found in Guelph is highlighting the need for better protections under the Endangered Species Act, says a local researcher.

Victoria MacPhail is an ecologist, co-founder of Pollination Guelph and is currently working toward a PhD in environmental studies at York University. Her work in a York University study has identified the American bumble bee as facing imminent extinction from Canada.

MacPhail said Canadians are most familiar with the honeybee, but she notes that there are over 800 types of bees that can be found in Canada.

“The honeybee is the one people are most famailiar with, because it makes honey. A lot of people don’t realize that isn’t a native species, it was actually brought from Europe for honey and for crop pollination,” said MacPhail. “It does the job, but our native species like the bumble bees do a lot of work as well and arguably more important work than honeybees do.”

The American bumble bee was once more common in grasslands across southern Ontario, but is now found less regularly. That’s why MacPhail was excited a few years back when one was spotted in a backyard garden in the Victoria Road North and Eastview Road area.

MacPhail observed another American bumble bee a few years later in the nearby area of Pollinators Park, which is fenced-off grassland growing over a former landfill site. It was developed into the grassland habitat in 2007 in a partnership between the city and Pollination Guelph.

MacPhail said that grassland is likely what is attracting that species of bee.

“This is one of the few grassland habitats we have left in the city and in southern Ontario,” said MacPhail. “It’s proof of how important these habitats are for bees and how we need to protect them.”

MacPhail said the many researchers and people in the conservation community are concerned by proposed changes to the Endangered Species Act, which she said could result in a cut to funding and possible delays in identifying and classifying species at risk.

The Rusty-patched bumble bee was another species of bee that was once found in Guelph, but has not been seen locally in many years.

“It was really common up until the 1980s and then within a couple of decades it disappeared. By the time it was assessed, it had disappeared from the landscape,” said MacPhail.

She is concerned similar delays in classifying species like the American bumble bee will also result in them disappearing from the local landscape — or worse, becoming extinct.

“We are concerned about any delays associated with assessing and listing species for giving it protection and even delaying recovering strategies could result in the loss of the species,” said MacPhail.

In a statement from the Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks spokesperson Gary Wheeler said consultations have begun to determine how to best update the act to improve the effectiveness of the environmental protections and ensure a balanced approach between a healthy environment and a healthy economy.

“Ontario is committed to ensuring Ontario’s best-in-class endangered and threatened species protections include advice and species’ classifications from an independent scientific committee and modern approaches to enforcement and compliance; species and habitat protections; and recovery planning,” said Wheeler.

A comment period for the consultations ends May 18, 2019. Comments to the government about the proposed changes can be left at this link.

Wheeler said the ministry recognizes and understands the significant role bees play as pollinators. 

“Without pollinators, much of the food we eat and the natural habitats we enjoy would not exist,” said Wheeler.

On that point, MacPhail agrees. 

“If you lose your pollinators, you start to lose your birds and your mammals. It cases a ripple effect throughout the whole ecosystem,” she said.

MacPhail said bees in Guelph are just starting to wake up after overwintering. 

“It’s been a cold spring. Literally any day now I expect them to come out,” said MacPhail.

Grasslands tend to flower later than some other areas, like wetlands and forests, said MacPhail, but she expects Pollinators Park to be in bloom about a month from now.

“In the next few weeks, it will start to green up,” she said.

People interested in helping researchers, or are just interested in knowing more about bees, can download an app called Bumble Bee Watch, which helps identify species. The app has the added benefit of letting researchers know which bees are located where and when they are starting to be spotted.

“We can identify the bees in the photos for them, tell them what species they have in their gardens or in the local park, but it also gives us so much information about what species are on the landscape, where are they and how are they doing,” said MacPhail.