This interview was conducted by Research Apprenticeship Programme (RAP) student Alyssa Ramos, Glendon Campus, with Professor Sheila Colla, Faculty of the Environment and Urban Change (https://www.savethebumblebees.ca).
How did you end up in this field, studying bees and their relationship to the environment and climate change?
During my undergraduate degree, the University of Toronto had the option to get course credit by volunteering in a lab. I was placed in a lab that studied evolutionary ecology of bees and plants, where I overcame my fear of them. Through working in that lab, I realized that no one was studying the decline of native bumblebees in Ontario despite evidence that some had declined rapidly so I decided to work on that for my PhD at York University.
Most of us understand the idea of greenwashing, when corporations spend money on campaigns to "look green" while carrying out unsustainable practices. But the idea of "beewashing" is new to me. Can you explain what this means?
Beewashing refers to branding of actions as sustainable and/or helpful for declining bees when in fact they are not. The biggest example is the promotion of honeybees outside of their native areas as somehow good for the environment or bee populations. In North America, we have about 2000 native bee species, none of which are the European Honeybee. Our native bees overwinter by sleeping and thus do not collect honey (aside from species in Mexico) and they are mostly solitary (not living in hives). Most of our native bee species have not been assessed in terms of conservation status but for those that have been, diseases introduced from managed bees seem to be a key threat. There is also growing evidence that honeybees can disrupt pollination of native plants and can outcompete native bees for pollen and nectar. The European Honeybee is not at risk of extinction and is in fact one of the most common livestock animals and invasive bees around the world. The fact that many businesses are adding honeybee hives and calling it a sustainability initiative, while actually increasing pressures to wild bees is the epitome of beewashing. We would never through a million Asian Carp into the great lakes and say we are saving declining fishes, so why do we accept it with bees?
What is the relationship between bees and climate change? How does your work championing wild bees compared to "managed bees" -- managed by humans, for instance, for honey production -- relate to climate change?
Honeybees are livestock. They produce honey, which is a food item that we use. But it's not related to climate change. In order to address climate change we need to conserve a diverse and abundant wild bee community. When we have a lot of species doing pollination services, our food systems and natural ecosystems will be more resilient to climate change. If we reduce diversity and put all our eggs in one basket, all it takes is one disease or weather event to come through to knock out that species and we are in big trouble. We saw how risky this is with how quickly Varroa mites and colony collapse disorder swept through honeybee colonies. It's also important to note that climate change is a threat to wild bees, native plants and other wildlife species, so prioritizing mitigating climate change is critical in order to conserve native pollinators and more.