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Bumble Bees: An Interview with Brian Campbell

bees category: Insects Pests and Diseases

Brian Campbell is a certified Master Beekeeper and long time figure at West Coast Seeds. He acts as our Purchasing & Production Coordinator and Quality Assurance Officer.


How did you become interested in bees?

BC: I was home-schooling my kids. We spent a great deal of time outside in the garden learning about plants. They asked to learn about insects. There are a lot of insects in the world so it was a challenge to narrow down our focus to go more in depth than just the standard list of bugs to study.

After a bit of research I discovered that there are just over 55 bee species found in the Lower Mainland. That seemed like an easy number for me to study before teaching my children. Plus the Blue Orchard mason bee is simple to keep and safe for kids to handle making bees a natural choice for study; we could follow bees around in the garden plus see their life cycle in a vivid way by keeping mason bees.

We had many adventures chasing bees with nets to identify them before releasing them back into the garden. For a couple of years we raised bumble bees in our laundry room in the basement.

I got fired up about bees and have continued learning about them while my kids are adults now and have moved on to other interests.

How did you get involved in Beekeeping and educating?

BC: At first I was not interested in honey bees or beekeeping at all. In general, at that time anyway, people interested in bees were interested in all bees - not just native bees over honey bees or vice versa - so I knew people who kept honey bees as well as mason bees.

Eventually a friend introduced me to honey bees and I was instantly hooked. To spot the queen laying eggs, to see how interconnected and organized the worker bees were and all that honey, wow! I was sold!

I thought it was a great activity for my family and I to pursue, endlessly entertaining and a lot of fun. Stings take a bit getting used to but are not a problem. Invigorating!

After my kids began to lose interest in bees and beekeeping my friend Lori Weidenhammer, author of Victory Garden for Bees, suggested I ask the Environmental Youth Alliance if they would be interested in developing a youth beekeeping programme with me. That was back in 2008 - I’d been a beekeeper for eleven years at that point.

The Youth Beekeeping Mentorship ran for ten years.  I mentored many hundreds of young people in beekeeping, native bees, and ecology. It was a very rewarding experience.

Somewhere along the way I started teaching at Langara and other venues. It's a pleasure to be in a position to share something I feel passionate about.  Many people say my love of bees, all bees, is infectious.

I’ve been very lucky to be able to work collaboratively with many people and organizations in the Lower Mainland and around the province on native bees, beekeeping and pollinator conservation.

How long have you been involved with bees?

BC: I have been involved with bees for over twenty years.

What are some of the projects/talks/programs you've been involved in?

BC: The project Border Free Bees just ended after four years. It was great working with Cameron Cartiere of Emily Carr University of Art and Design plus Nancy Holmes of UBC Okanagan. This was a public art bee conservation initiative that designed and installed several pollinator pastures in Richmond, Kelowna, Idaho, and Mexico as well as many art/bee inspired public engagement activities. Truly border free!

It was a lot of fun and I learned tonnes about working with artists, universities, and the many partners the project drew in. My role was as a consultant on wildflowers, seeds and bees and as a co-designer of the meadows and pastures we created. It was very rewarding.

Wrapping up later this year is my role at the University of British Columbia Botanical Garden as “Beeologist in Residence.” Mostly I have been working behind the scenes on researching plants for pollinators. My role is consultant and advisor on how best to conserve pollinators at the Garden; I’ve been working on best practices for landscapers; a pollinator plan for the Garden; and have been supporting the work the Garden does with Metro Vancouver’s Grow Green Guide.

As my term as Beeologist ends at the Garden we have embarked on a cross-disciplinary research pilot project on bumble bees, Project Bee Smart: Environmental Designs for Bee Conservation. Again it will be my pleasure to work with folks at the university in studying these important native bees and how best to conserve them. We intend to study the effects climate and environmental changes have on bumble bee population dynamics and distribution.

We hope to develop an effective citizen scientist project that can be rolled out across the province based on the methodology we create during the pilot phase of the programme.

I have also been giving talks and workshops at Van Dusen Botanical Garden for over fifteen years, all bee related topics.  This year I will be leading a workshop on wasps for the first time. The bumble bee walk and nest making workshop is one of the most popular ones I give there.

Is there anything about bees that might surprise people?

BC: There are two things that people find surprising:

Bees are a kind of wasp! They are pollen-eating wasps. We like to make distinctions that do not exist in the natural world. Bees are descended from wasps and are so closely related we should think of them as wasps with good PR. So, the next time someone says bees are good and wasps are bad please correct them. They are all good.

Bumble bees sing to flowers. This is called ‘buzz pollination’ or sonication.

Bees and flowering plants co-evolved in an intensely mutualistic way to the extent that some flowers are very specific what pollinators they will accept. They erect barriers that prevent some pollinators from visiting but welcome others. These barriers can be structural, the shape of the flower for example, it can be chemical, perhaps producing a scent similar to a bee pheromone that draws one species in over others, or can even be a sound or vibratory barrier.

Here in British Columbia we have a number of plants whose pollen is kept in a salt and pepper shaker-like structure. The pollen will only be released if a bee can buzz at the frequency of a C-note. Bumble bees do this. Literally, a bumble bee lands on one of these flowers and makes a high-pitched C-note buzz. In response the flower releases its pollen for the bumble bee. Good vibes man!

How can people do their part to help bumble bees?

BC: There are many things combined that are leading to a decline in bumble bees across the world. One of the biggest is loss of habitat. Much of the basis for biodiversity conservation comes down to one very big thing, habitat conservation. As cities expand, industrial levels of agriculture take over rural areas plus deforestation, desertification and all the rest of it there is less and less land for wild animals and plants to live.

The most significant thing we can do is garden for bees. If we want more bees we need more flowers, all kinds of flowers, tall flowers, short flowers, all the colours of the rainbow and every shape imaginable. Remember, bees and flowering plants co-evolved, pollinator diversity and vigour is mirrored by botanical diversity and vigour. Grow native plants and introduced flowers too. Plant trees and shrubs, perennials and annuals, shade loving and plants for sunny spots in the garden.

It doesn’t matter how big your garden is, even a tiny patio with a few pots of flowers can sustain life and be a part of a network of plants and flowers across the city that provide for bumble bees.

We are living in an era of unprecedented change, a time when the very earth we call home is facing tremendous stresses and challenges. We can face these as opportunities to build a better future.

West Coast Seeds has developed several wildflower blends to build a sustainable future and help bumble bees: the Bumble Bee Blend and the Biodiversity Blend. Give one or both a try. You’ll be amazed at the life it attracts to your garden.

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