Gateway Gazette

MRU Prof Creating Buzz Over Native Bees

By Bryan Weismiller

Alexandria Farmer, an instructor with MRU's Department of Biology, is a self-described "bee evangelist." ~Photos by Bryan Weismiller
Alexandria Farmer, an instructor with MRU’s Department of Biology, is a self-described “bee evangelist.” ~Photos by Bryan Weismiller

When it comes to black-and-gold critters, honey bees are often hailed as queens of the monarchy. Whether emblazoned on the front of cereal boxes or featured in Hollywood flicks, the honey-makers tend to catch some seriously sweet attention.

One Mount Royal University ecologist is feeling stung by all of the hype over the winged creatures known to scientists as Apis mellifera. Alexandria Farmer, an instructor in the Department of Biology, is raising awareness of the more than 300 native pollinators in Alberta, of which, only the bumble bees are capable of producing honey.

Farmer is concerned that some indigenous species, such as the western bumblebee, are in grave decline due to human interference. She also warned about the rise in urban beekeeping (mostly of the uber popular honey bees), noting, when it comes to numbers of colonies brought in, and with respect to availability of food resources (i.e. flowers),  it’s an unregulated practice that can create stiff competition for scarce nectar and pollen. In fact recent studies are showing such competition can have serious consequences for native bees.

“We need diversity to pollinate all different sizes of flowers,” Farmer said. “The more biodiversity you have in an ecosystem, the more resilient it is.

These bee boxes will become nesting sites for some lucky queens from the 27 colony-forming species of bumble-bees found in Alberta, many species being found locally.
These bee boxes will become nesting sites for some lucky queens from the 27 colony-forming species of bumble-bees found in Alberta, many species being found locally.

“We’ve seen it over, and over, again — every time we start relying on monocultures then everything goes awry.”

The importance of bees can be traced back to such deep thinkers as Albert Einstein, who is often credited (rightly or wrongly) with saying bee extinction would spell the end of mankind within four years. Experts agree dwindling bee populations are devastating to the global food supply, as some have suggested nearly one-third of our diet depends on pollinated crops.

Although the entomological community shares serious concerns, Farmer is anything but a buzzkill. The self-described “bee evangelist” brings a distinct enthusiasm to the job of bee cheerleader — and she shares it with others.

Farmer has spent the past five years advocating for the cause as a volunteer with the Alberta Science Network. Turner Valley School was one of her most recent campaign stops. There, she bestowed honorary doctorates on a class of Grade 3 students.

After some in-class learning, the pint-sized “citizen scientists” headed outside to explore neighbouring forested areas. The students planted two dozen boxes that will become nesting sites for some lucky queens from the 27 colony-forming species of bumble-bees found in Alberta, many species being found locally.

For science teacher Jennifer Park, the guest lecture and outdoor lab tied directly into current lessons on lifecycles. Park underscored the value of hands-on learning, saying the students “grasp so much more” than they would by reading books alone.

“They were all afraid of bees because they sting,” Park said. “Now, they’re excited that they get to home some bees.

“In the fall, they’re going to see that they raised a new colony of bees.”

Mount Royal University

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