The buzz around York Univer­sity

PhD stu­dent Vic­to­ria MacPhail cap­tures com­mon eastern bum­ble­bees on the grounds of York Univer­sity. Bum­ble Bee Watch pro­gram re­lies on thou­sands of cit­i­zens to track in­sects’ bee-haviours


Sum­mer sends Canada’s largest col­lege cam­pus into a slum­ber. While the years have pop­u­lated York Univer­sity’s vast Keele St. grounds with more and more new build­ings, July and August still de­nude the 457-acre prop­erty of peo­ple. But bum­ble­bees abound. And there one re­cent morn­ing — in a swel­ter­ing meadow on the school’s south­east­ern-most edge — was PhD stu­dent Vic­to­ria MacPhail pluck­ing them up, one by one, with an art­ful twist of a net.

“This is a com­mon eastern bum­ble­bee,” said MacPhail, 37, showing off her first, ag­i­tated capture in a clear plas­tic vial.

“It is the most com­mon bum­ble­bee you’ll find around here ... and it seems to be lov­ing ur­ban ar­eas in par­tic­u­lar,” she said.

This stripe-rumped Bom­bus im­pa­tiens is not only thriv­ing in south­ern On­tario, but is now spread­ing its labour­ing wings across large stretches of Western Canada.

Like their hon­ey­bee cousins, how­ever, many bum­ble­bee species are in trou­ble — some see­ing pop­u­la­tion de­clines so steep they’ve all but dis­ap­peared from long­time habi­tats.

“We’ve ac­tu­ally found that prob­a­bly about a third of our bum­ble­bees are in de­cline,” said MacPhail, her eyes scan­ning the grass­land from be­neath a Til­ley hat.

And MacPhail is an im­por­tant part of a York-led project that is try­ing to help address th­ese plung­ing num­bers by re­cruit­ing thou­sands of or­di­nary cit­i­zens from across North Amer­ica to the cause.

Known as the Bum­ble Bee Watch, the project now em­ploys some 8,300 “cit­i­zen sci­en­tists” who are on the look­out for the in­sects in back­yards, parks, camp­grounds and neigh­bour­hoods through­out the U.S. and Canada.

“We’re try­ing to fig­ure out where are our rare species, where are our com­mon species (and) how are they do­ing,” said MacPhail, whose doc­toral the­sis is cen­tred on the project.

“Are they do­ing things that change their range, are they ex­pand­ing their range, con­tract­ing their range, what flow­ers are they feed­ing on, what time

of year do they come out — all th­ese basic questions about bum­ble­bees.”

There are no known, but al­most cer­tainly mul­ti­ple ex­pla­na­tions for the de­cline of bum­ble­bee species.

For ex­am­ple, an­swers are sought about the Rusty Patched va­ri­ety once abun­dant in south­ern On­tario, MacPhail said. Cli­mate and habi­tat changes, pol­lu­tion, pes­ti­cides and par­a­sites and other ail­ments could be counted among the ex­pla­na­tions.

“This is the 15th year since we’ve last seen this bum­ble­bee here,” MacPhail said.

And it’s only by an­swer­ing the basic, Bum­ble Bee Watch questions that ef­fec­tive con­ser­va­tion efforts can be launched, said Sheila Colla, an en­vi­ron­men­tal sci­en­tist at York and founder of the project. Ex­pand­ing the num­ber of eyes — and cell­phone cam­eras — that can be trained on the crea­tures has helped to fill in both map­ping and knowl­edge gaps on their lo­ca­tions, move­ments and be­hav­iours, said Colla, who started the project in 2015.

“I’ve been work­ing on bum­ble­bees since 2003 (and) I spent a good 10 years just driving around look­ing for some rare species and not re­ally find­ing any,” she said.

“So ... we kind of thought maybe it makes more sense to get more eyes on the ground.” Em­ploy­ing a Bum­ble Bee Watch in­ter­net app, those am­a­teur eyes have so far pro­duced some 41,000 recorded sightings that in­clude all but a half dozen of the 46 known species of the in­sect.

Im­por­tantly, the sub­mis­sions also in­clude such things as the types of flow­ers the bees are feed­ing on, the times of year and day they are ac­tive and, on rare oc­ca­sions, the lo­ca­tions of their elu­sive nests, MacPhail said.

Com­pared to the hon­ey­bee, the bum­ble­bee is some­thing of a lout in the nest-build­ing de­part­ment.

Whereas hon­ey­bees can or­ga­nize themselves in the tens of thou­sands to build vast hives of per­fectly formed, hexag­o­nal­celled comb, the bum­ble­bee con­structs lumpy abodes — of a few dozen in­hab­i­tants — hid­den furtively on or in the ground.

“They’re more like lit­tle pods of wax ... just sort of a hap­haz­ard,” said MacPhail.

She added that — un­like hon­ey­bees — bum­ble­bees only live for one year and don’t re­quire large stores of well-sorted honey to see them and their young through the win­ter. Like their honey-mak­ing coun­ter­parts, how­ever, bum­ble­bees are cru­cial pol­li­na­tors, she said.

Many ap­ple or­chard own­ers im­port hon­ey­bee hives onto their prop­er­ties each spring to pol­li­nate their trees.

“And they get ap­ples and they say ‘woohoo we got pol­li­na­tion it must have been the hon­ey­bees,’” MacPhail said.

“And the hon­ey­bees may have done a lit­tle bit of the work, but it’s prob­a­bly the bum­ble­bees (and other species) that are out there do­ing most of it.”

The York project closely re­sem­bles the much larger eBird ini­tia­tive.

That world-wide ef­fort has col­lected more than100 mil­lion bird sightings from tens of thou­sands of watch­ers around the globe.

How­ever, un­like the vol­un­teer eBird par­tic­i­pants — many of whom are ex­pe­ri­enced bird­ers — most bum­ble­bee watch­ers know lit­tle about the in­sects they’re scout­ing.

Thus the data they pro­vide the project is rel­a­tively raw and it’s left to Colla, MacPhail and other aca­demic ex­perts to cu­rate — re­ly­ing on of­ten sub­tle colour­ing and fa­cial dif­fer­ences for iden­ti­fi­ca­tion.

As part of her the­sis pa­per, MacPhail will look at the ef­fec­tive­ness of such am­a­teur in­puts into main­stream sci­ence.

But, as on her morn­ing prowl at York, MacPhail is still ac­tively en­gaged in the search and iden­ti­fi­ca­tion process.

Armed with a net, pockets full of plas­tic vials and a freezer block-filled pouch, she can col­lect hun­dreds of bees on a sin­gle for­age.

With an al­most flaw­lessly sting-free tech­nique, she’ll place spec­i­mens in the vials, which she marks on a mask­ing tape patch with the species’ name and type of plant it was feed­ing on.

She then places the ag­i­tated bugs into her pouch, where the cool­ing packs calm them down un­til she can get back to a nearby com­puter to record all rel­e­vant de­tails.

The bees are then re­leased, none the worse for wear.

And MacPhail, who has been study­ing bum­ble­bees for more than a decade in both pro­fes­sional and aca­demic set­tings, has abun­dant en­thu­si­asm left for her field­work chases.

“If I see a com­mon eastern I might say ‘ehh,’” she said.

“But if it’s some­thing rare, some­thing dif­fer­ent, I’ll jump logs and ditches to go af­ter it.”



While bum­ble­bees only live for one year, they are cru­cial pol­li­na­tors, Vic­to­ria MacPhail said.

Sheila Colla started York Univer­sity's Bum­ble Bee Watch in 2015. “We kind of thought maybe it makes more sense to get more eyes on the ground,” she says.

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