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Examining public awareness of bees and the need for pollinator conservation

Examining public awareness of bees and the need for pollinator conservation
Sheila Colla

What is the buzz about bees? Why do we need to protect the well-bee-ing of bees? How concerned are you about the health of honeybees and the conservation of wild, native bees? Who is responsible for the protection of wild native bee populations in Canada? These are some of the questions that a team of researchers including Professor Sheila Colla, PhD students Nyssa van Vierssen Trip and Victoria MacPhail, as well as Beatrice Olivastri (CEO, Friends of the Earth) posed in a recent study that aimed to understand public knowledge and perceptions of bees, particularly native wild bees and the need to protect them in Canada. Not surprisingly, the researchers found that there is a lack of bee knowledge among the 2000 participants surveyed in the study.  Half of the participants, for example, named the non‐native managed European honeybee as a wild bee, native to Canada. Half of participants also thought the Canadian federal and provincial government should be responsible for bee conservation. Over two‐thirds of participants stated the provisioning of ecosystem services is the most important reason to conserve bees.

Nyssa Trip

“What we found, is that despite people’s general knowledge about native wild bees being low, they care about bees --  they are interested in bee conservation and there is strong engagement in this issue,” says van Vierssen. “The reason for analyzing the survey results in detail is we really wanted to understand the Canadian public’s overall general knowledge of bees, their perceptions of bees and the threats they face,” she adds.  

The results highlight the key role that scientific researchers as well as environmental non-governmental organizations (ENGOs) play in outreach and education activities towards active lobbying at the provincial and federal levels with respect to bee conservation. 

“There is a real need to work with the public and educate them about Canada’s native wild bee species,” says Colla. “It is important in order to increase legal protections for bees, we need to understand how the public sees them. If there is support for bee conservation among the public, then it would be easier for politicians to take action,” she adds. (See Notably, Colla’s SavetheBumblebees research lab at York University is studying all aspects of native pollinator conservation.  

Friends of the Earth Canada initially conducted a poll to understand the level of support from Canadians for protecting wild, native bees and their understanding of these species. “The analysis of the poll results by researchers from York University adds weight to the interpretation of these findings and increases their utility for scientists and government officials. We believe Canadians will support new measures to protect wild, native bees beyond protection for those already at risk” says Olivastri. 

Rachel Nalepa – The Conversation
Rachel Nalepa

Along with postdoc fellow, Rachel Nalepa and Colla are in the process of developing Canada’s first national pollinator strategy.  Accordingly, the development of the strategy will be science-led, non-partisan and will aim to engage all stakeholders, including industry and the public. They will review pollinator policies written for various jurisdictions in the EU, UK and North America to compile various approaches and analyze various potential frameworks. They just published an article on pollinator-supporting land management practices on the farm providing evidence on how to sustainably continue growth of agricultural lands and urban areas while minimizing impacts on wild pollinators and the natural ecosystem service of natural pollination.  (Also see their TVO article on Give Bees A Chance). Notably, Colla's interdisciplinary research has been at the forefront of the field of pollinator conservation, a dynamic and growing subject area within the broader fields of ecology and conservation biology. Her early research was among the first to quantitatively document the declines of native bee species in North America and to document pathogen spillover from managed bees to wild bees. These papers are highly cited, have been replicated and have informed subsequent research in the field globally.  

In 2014, she and her colleagues published “The Bumblebees of North America:-An Identification Guide (Princeton University Press). This award-winning book has sold over 12,000 copies and has provided a much-needed reference guide for scientists and practitioners using a large-compiled dataset of over 300,000 species records, morphological descriptions, ecological information and molecular genetics. This book has led to consistency in species identifications across the continent, which will better allow for comparative studies in the future. During the same year, she helped launch a Community Science project,, with various partners. This allows the public to help build a long-term database of bumblebees which can be used to look at changes in abundance and distribution over time in light of global change. In 2020, she co-published an FoE publication titled A Flower Patch for Rusty-Patched Bumblebee: Creating Habitat Gardens for Native Pollinators in the GTA, a practical guide and powerful tool for taking action to support and protect native bees by creating habitat where we live, work and gather as communities.  

Indeed, in pursuit of this goal, Colla collaborated with fellow EUC professor in Indigenous arts Lisa Myers and visual artist Dana Prieto in a New Frontiers Research Fund project which they dubbed “Finding Flowers”, focuses on pollinator conservation through ecology, art and pedagogy and aims to take a biocultural and interdisciplinary approach to investigate plant-pollinator biodiversity in Canada, while also expanding Indigenous art history and curatorial practices. The team, along with artists/curators, ecologists and native plant experts, as well as Indigenous elders and knowledge holders in the country, are working with pre-existing gardens created by the late Mi’kmaq artist Mike MacDonald.  

Finding Flowers Research Team

Among other initiatives that engage indigenous gardens, the team has replanted the late Mi’kmaq artist Mike MacDonald’s Medicine and Butterfly Garden at the Woodland Cultural Centre and newly planted this same garden at the Kitchener Waterloo Art Gallery. Multi-event community engaged art projects would activate and animate the various garden sites on the grounds of art centres and galleries across Canada. Similar in-situ events will be held at Mount Saint Vincent Art Gallery in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Walter Phillips Gallery at the Banff Art Centre, in Alberta, Canada and other locations. In fact, the replanting of Mike MacDonald's Medicine and Butterfly Garden at the Kitchener Waterloo Art Gallery (KWAG) and the Woodland Cultural Centre has received the award of best exhibition by the Ontario Association of Art Galleries 2020.  

In over a decade of pollinator research, Colla has produced some of the key studies on the statuses and threats to wild pollinators. She has recently been awarded a York Research Chair in Interdisciplinary Conservation Science recognizing her leadership  in the development of policy, community science programing and science communication which has significantly increased knowledge mobilization of relevant scientific research and influenced policy in a variety of jurisdictions including the USA, Canada, Ontario and Toronto. In collaboration with other colleagues at York, they initiated the creation of a Bee Ecology, Evolution & Conservation (BEEc), an interdisciplinary research centre that will advance research in the fields of bee ecology, evolution and conservation. (See Colla's tips on bee conservation in celebration of World Bee Day on May 20).

Colla’s research program continues to investigate issues to solve real-world conservation challenges from a variety of angles. Her research projects have generously been funded by The Weston Family Foundation, the Province of Ontario, MITACS, Environment and Climate Change Canada, the Tri-Councils, and the Liber Ero Fellowship Program. Research partners include the Nature Conservancy of Canada, Friends of the Earth Canada, Wildlife Preservation Canada, Ontario Nature and The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation.