Bumblebee research: some hard facts and soft fuzz

Before I can step into Environment Yukon’s Whitehorse headquarters on Burns Road, I’m met at a nearby flowering lupine by a large, fuzzy, loud and somewhat aggressive bumblebee.

Before I can step into Environment Yukon’s Whitehorse headquarters on Burns Road, I’m met at a nearby flowering lupine by a large, fuzzy, loud and somewhat aggressive bumblebee. It’s an auspicious encounter, seeing as I am visiting Environment Yukon to interview a bumblebee researcher.

Veronica Huggard is a Yukon Youth Conservation Corps crew leader for Environment and a University of Victoria biology major. Huggard tells me that the plump, black and yellow lady I encountered at the lupine was a queen Bombus nevadensis, one of the Yukon’s two large bumblebee species. B. nevadensis can be readily ID’d by the “black saddle” I’d noted on her thorax.

Like most people, I find bumblebees attractive, even somehow personable, but I am discomfited when one initiates a meeting face to face. I mention that to Huggard. “I’ve never been stung by a bumblebee,” she responds – convincing words

from someone who has handled many of them while working on her bachelor of science honours project over the past two years at the University of Victoria.

“Yes, insects can be creepy crawly,” she says. But she’s been a close neighbour to bees and a great many other creatures large and small from early on, having grown up in a wall tent off Annie Lake Road. Her initial minor twinge of aversion to insects and other such multi-legged critters morphed into outright fascination over the years, she says. In fact, they set her on her educational path.

“I knew that if I took the insect class at UVic, I’d have to collect as many as I could. I got over the heebie-jeebies though, because when you’re holding them in your hand, you get really acquainted with them.

“And they’re so diverse. I think that’s one of the coolest things.”

You’d think that someone born and raised in the rural Yukon might make a run for the bright lights of New York or Toronto in adulthood, but that’s often not the case. Many of the territory’s 20-somethings these days are studying their native environment ever more closely and dedicating their lives to understanding and preserving its flora and fauna.

“The Yukon is so perfect, I find,” says Huggard. “There’s just so much work that needs to be done. You can pick any order of insects you want and you can pretty much make them a career.”

Although some Outside institutions, such as McGill University, send entomologists to the Yukon wilds in the summer, they tend to move on after a few weeks. Huggard says that in her case it’s an enjoyable duty to devote May through August to getting to know the locals, especially the buzzing fuzzy ones with black and yellow stripes.

Huggard undertook a field search for baseline data at Chadburn Lake last summer. “My question was, ‘What species of bees do we actually have?’” So for four months she collected insects in pan traps – a mix of blue- and yellow-coloured bowls filled with soapy water – placed at intervals along two transects. She’d return to check on them, transect by transect, each week.

“My focus was what kind of bees do we have? What species? When are they most abundant? Are there more in May than in August? When do the males come out?”

Much of her work is about coming to understand a temporal sequence, she adds.

In the spring, a lot of big bees are out, says Huggard. These are the queens who have overwintered. “That’s why spring flowers are so important; the queens need to find a place to establish their colony.”

The colony will eventually consist of a very few males called drones, which Huggard says are smaller than the queens, sport handsome moustaches and basically serve as “sperm packets.”

Their function is to help produce the next generation. Most of that generation will consist of small female workers. These small females are worker bees. Each has a genetically determined speciality. “They’re the ones who go out and collect honey and do all the hive stuff.”

Over the summer of 2014, Huggard concentrated primarily on bee species. This summer she’s studying the relationship between bumblebees and flowers. Unfortunately, we had an especially early spring and the crocus had nearly finished flowering by the time Huggard got back home from Victoria. Though there are the remnants of flowering lupine to study …

and fireweed flowers to come.

She has noticed that there are bee species in the lupine near her transects that weren’t there last summer, so it’s even more significant that she’s doing her research in the southern Yukon. “If you were to do this here year after year after year, you could see how bees from British Columbia and Alberta are shifting north,” she says.

It is essential to keep a sharp eye out in alpine regions, she stresses. As things warm up at lower elevations, ever more species could move up the mountains until they are forced to share a very diminished cool environment at the summits. What might this mean for the pollinators and the plants and crops that depend on them?

“So I’d really like to do my masters on bumblebees in the alpine,” Huggard says. Then she pauses and adds: “That being said, if I had an opportunity to study another insect I wouldn’t say no to it.”

But with insect species estimates of 10 to 100 million (give or take) insect species on the planet, it could be quite a task for an entomologist to choose a new speciality. “They’re all really important,” says Huggard.

This column is co-ordinated by the Yukon Research Centre at Yukon College with major financial support from Environment Yukon and Yukon College. The articles are archived at http://www.yukoncollege.yk.ca/research/publications/your_yukon