Alberta’s native pollinators coevolved with regional plants; together they are foundational to the function of ecosystems throughout the province.
AWA’s vision is to have robust, healthy, and diverse native pollinator populations capable of provisioning both crops and wild flowering plants with sufficient pollination services. AWA advocates for better support for native pollinators from government and industry, including legislated protections addressing high pathogen loads and disease spillover between pollinators, the continued loss and degradation of quality habitat, and the use and overreliance of agrochemicals. AWA emphasizes the need to protect, restore, and create high-quality pollinator habitat, support ecological integrity and connectivity, improve risk assessments on pesticides and reduce their use overall, and increase awareness of native pollinators and their threats to the general public.
One of the oldest and most successful relationships on Earth is that of pollinators and flowering plants. Over 135 million years ago, flowering plants began appearing in the paleontological calendar; their rapid rise and diversification to become the largest group within the plant Kingdom is owed to the incredibly effective mutualism that is animal pollination. An explosion of terrestrial biodiversity also coincides with the emergence of this reproductive mechanism – that is to say, the importance of pollinators (and plants!) cannot be overstated. Were it not for their coevolution, the wilderness we enjoy today would likely look much different.
A diverse array of animals function as pollinators, facilitating the movement of pollen from anther to stigma. In Alberta, insects like ants, bees, beetles, butterflies, flies, hummingbirds, moths, and wasps are most common, but elsewhere, bats, marsupials, lizards, rodents, and other animals also play this role. Among the best-studied animal pollinators are bees and butterflies, and as indicator taxa, they reveal a worrisome trend: many pollinator species are in decline. While any loss of biodiversity is concerning, pollinators are a foundational component of terrestrial ecosystems and their services critical to food security. Animal pollination is an ecosystem service not easily replaced. Despite this, in Alberta and Canada at large, there are no meaningful policies or strategies in place for the protection of pollinators.
The vast majority of pollinator species have had no formal assessment. Of the 16 assessed, 63% are without and overdue for recovery strategies. No action plans have been completed. Pollinator species statuses at the provincial level are non-existent. This reflects existing taxonomic biases in conservation research and efforts; insects are consistently underrepresented.
|Species||Latest COSEWIC Assessment||Federal Status (Species at Risk Act)||Recovery Strategy Available?|
|Dusky Dune Moth||Threatened (2022)||Endangered (2010)||Yes (2015)|
|Five-spotted Bogus Yucca Moth||Endangered (2013)||Endangered (2007)||Yes (2019)|
|Gold-edged Gem||Endangered (2016)||Endangered (2007)||Yes (2014)|
|Gypsy Cuckoo Bumble Bee||Endangered (2014)||Endangered (2018)||Yes [not finalized]|
|Half-moon Hairstreak (Waterton Lakes population)||Endangered (2022)||No Status||No|
|Macropis Cuckoo Bee||Endangered (2011)||Endangered (2018)||Yes (2021)|
|Monarch||Endangered (2016)||Special Concern (2003)||No|
|Nine-spotted Lady Beetle||Endangered (2016)||Endangered (2023)||No|
|Pale Yellow Dune Moth||Special Concern (2018)||Special Concern (2010)||No|
|Suckley’s Cuckoo Bumble Bee||Threatened (2019)||Not Listed (addition pending)||No|
|Transverse Lady Beetle||Special Concern (2016)||Special Concern (2021)||No|
|Verna’s Flower Moth||Threatened (2017)||Threatened (2009)||Yes (2016)|
|Vivid Dancer||Special Concern (2015)||Special Concern (2019)||No|
|Weidemeyer’s Admiral||Special Concern (2012)||Special Concern (2003)||No|
|Western Bumble Bee (occidentalis subspecies)||Threatened (2014)||Not Listed (addition pending)||No|
|Yellow-banded Bumble Bee||Special Concern (2015)||Special Concern (2018)||No|
|Yucca Moth||Endangered (2013)||Endangered (2005)||Yes (2019)|
Although species-specific information is limited, the Wild Species: The General Status of Species in Canada reports released every five years provide additional insight into the general well-being of pollinators in the province. Prepared by the Canadian Endangered Species Conservation Council, the 2020 report finds that large proportions of many major pollinator taxa* are threatened.
*Note: Not every single one of these species functions as a pollinator, i.e. not all 2700 of Alberta’s beetles pollinate (though they likely fulfill many other important ecological functions!).
Pollinators face many overlapping and interacting threats, causing declines in abundance, occurrence, and diversity around the globe in both agricultural and wild landscapes (Garibaldi et al., 2013; IPBES, 2016). The main drivers of observed declines include habitat loss or fragmentation, agricultural chemicals, diseases, introduced, non-native, and invasive species, and climate change (Potts et al., 2010).
When habitats become fragmented, resident species suffer reduced population sizes and face increased isolation and exposure to unfamiliar environments (Rathcke and Jules, 1993). It is one of the most obvious forms of environmental degradation, as human developments and agriculture continue to expand into natural landscapes. In plant-pollinator interactions, habitat fragmentation results in a reduced abundance and diversity of pollinators, and reduced pollination and seed set in plants. Pollinators and plants are more likely to go extinct in a fragmented landscape when they are involved in a specialized mutualism (Rathcke and Jules, 1993). Pollinator species that specialize on specific plants or in certain habitats, produce a single brood per year, or do not migrate have also been identified as less adaptable and have seen greater population declines (Biesmeijer et al., 2006). Research has reiterated that loss of preferred host plants can result in parallel declines in reliant bee populations, whereas species that foraged on crops were much more stable or even saw increased abundance (Scheper et al., 2014).
Intensification of land-use (observed in current agricultural landscapes) is associated with a reduction of pollinator species richness; larger average body size, a narrow diet range, and solitary behaviour were some of the traits that marked pollinator species to be more susceptible to increased land-use (Rader et al., 2014). Agrochemicals, particularly pesticides, have adverse health impacts on pollinators (even at sub-lethal levels) and interact synergistically with diseases present in populations (Lu et al., 2020).
Climate change is causing the ranges of plants and pollinators to shift to accommodate for the increasing temperatures, which puts populations that occupy the edges of their species’ climatic range at risk (Vanbergan et al., 2013). Differing rates of migration and phenological changes between associating plants and pollinators may disrupt pollination interactions, and put species at risk of extirpation or extinction if they are unable to adapt (Vanbergan et al., 2013). Currently, efforts in pollinator conservation are largely rooted in an agricultural context, funded by the government and related industry (Winfree, 2010). While this is beneficial to pollinators that live in crop settings, it neglects natural and wild landscapes that also suffer pollinator declines (Winfree, 2010).
There is an ongoing conversation about the increasing dependence on a singular pollinator species, the European honey bee, Apis mellifera (Winfree, 2008; Geldmann and Gonzalez-Varo, 2018). Non-native to the Americas, the European honey bee is now widely dispersed across all the continents (with the exception of Antarctica) while the nine other honey bee species are localized mainly to Asia. It is prized as a generalist pollinator, as the hives themselves are easily transportable to allow movement to locations where its services are deemed necessary.
Putting so much emphasis and importance on a single species has resulted in a variety of problems, both ecological and economic (Winfree, 2008; Colla and MacIvor, 2017). Honey bees are currently host to a large assortment of diseases and parasites, and through interspecies pathogen transmission, viruses like Deformed Wing Virus (DWV) and microsporidian funguses like Nosema ceranae have spread to native bee species (Fürst et al., 2014). Pathogen spillover represents a major threat and is implicated in the decline of some at-risk pollinator species, including the Western bumble bee (B. occidentalis).
Other potential negative impacts include competition for nesting sites and floral resources, pollinating and propagating invasive weeds, and interference with current pollination networks (Russo, 2016). Foraging competition between honey bees and native wild bees was observed in a 2018 study, whereby high-density beekeeping operations resulted in the reduction of both the nectar foraging success and occurrence of local bees, as well as reduced accumulation of nectar and pollen by the honey bee colonies (Henry and Rodet). While a great amount of research confirms that the presence of honey bees affects native pollinators, debate surrounds whether they are actually responsible for any observed native pollinator declines, or if it is other factors at play (Moritz et al., 2005; Mallinger, Gaines-Day, and Gratton, 2017).
Regardless, the overwhelming focus on honey bees by media and the public undermines current policies, funding, and conservation efforts for native pollinators (Smith and Saunders, 2016; Colla and MacIvor, 2017). Bee-washing, a type of greenwashing which advertises a product or initiative as supporting wild bee or pollinator populations without the appropriate due diligence and research, is rampant in #savethebees campaigns (Colla, 2022). The majority of these efforts support honey bees, which is akin to protecting chickens to conserve endangered birds.
Native pollinators are not explicitly addressed at either the federal or provincial levels. In fact, most mentions of the word “bee” within government policy imply non-native honey bees, or in some cases, are not referring to bees at all (for example, PEI’s Animal Health Act uses bee in a description of Vespa velutina, the Asian Hornet). To justify protection of native pollinators, some indirect applications of existing laws, including the federal Health of Animals Act and the Plant Protection Act, or the provincial Animal, Apiary/ies, or Bee Acts, could be employed. Specific interpretations of these acts may extend some protections, by way of either controlling spread of diseases and invasive species, providing standards of treatment and care, or regulating, monitoring, and documenting movement of managed species. However, in the absence of explicit native pollinator protection legislation, our wild bees, flies, moths, butterflies, beetles, and other pollinators are left without real targeted support from our governments. And on a global context, that means we are trailing the curve.
Canada is lagging behind its peers. In North America, both the US and Mexico have had national pollinator protection strategies in place since 2015 and 2021, respectively. Further abroad, 34 nations, including Belgium, Colombia, England, Ireland, France, Nigeria, Norway, the Netherlands, and Spain, have enacted similar plans and initiatives with the specific goal of protecting pollinators. Pollinator legislation also need not be restricted to just the federal level; in the US, 32 states have their own sub-national plans coordinated within the country’s national strategy, with more developed each year. With such a large body of international examples to draw on, there should be no reason Canada can not endorse similar policies – if anything, the process should be easier with the ability to learn from spearheading nations’ challenges and successes.
Current evaluations of international policy find the main challenges include effectively coordinating efforts and establishing appropriate funding, expertise, and resources. Knowledge gaps on species and ecosystems, a lack of monitoring, evaluation, and reporting programs, and an inflated focus on non-native managed honey bees to the detriment of wild bee species and other pollinator taxa, are common criticisms across these existing national strategies.
The adage “the best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago. The second best time is now” rings true here – while we should have had national or provincial pollinator strategies in place years ago, Canada’s tardiness has afforded the opportunity to avoid some of these pitfalls and establish robust legislation today. Additionally, both international and national experts have already supplied guiding documents in the form of white papers and peer-reviewed literature outlining potential frameworks for Canada and Alberta to adopt. The groundwork is done, it is simply up to us to act on it.
The core principles of an effective Canadian pollinator policy should:
International and Canada-specific policy recommendations already exist to inform the development of pollinator protection legislation and identify four major threats that must be addressed: habitat loss, non-native species, pathogens, and pesticides. Recommendations for Canada were recently developed by over thirty experts of diverse professional and personal backgrounds, who considered both the utility and feasibility of almost a hundred proposed solutions for protecting pollinator populations. Listed below are some policy examples that were both strongly supported and considered very feasible by experts, organized by the threat they address. It is important to note that some recommendations are specific to native bees, as this is the most well-studied pollinator taxa, but the assumption is that efforts to help native bees will also help other types of pollinators. This assumption also does not negate the need for greater interest, funding, and resources for conservation research into all of Alberta’s pollinator species.
A full list of recommendations, knowledge gaps, and research priorities can be found here. While some potential policies are specific to the federal level, many recommendations can and should be adopted and adapted at the provincial scale; regional planning to complement a national strategy is the ideal scenario.
In 1924, An Act for the Prevention and Treatment of Contagious Diseases among Bees, short-titled The Bee Diseases Act, was enacted by the Alberta Legislative Assembly. While not explicit, the act contextually refers to the care and keeping of non-native European honey bees (Apis mellifera). It established the need to monitor managed honey bees for disease, specifically foulbrood, and mandated responsible parties to quarantine and destroy their bees, hives, and associated equipment if the disease is confirmed. Quarantine was also necessary when bees were imported into the province until an inspector could confirm they were free of disease.
The act recognized the need to manage disease and prevent its transmission throughout the province. Amendments over the years required beekeepers to register annually with the province and set timeframes for when disease must be reported. Transporting bees and their associated equipment required a permit from the Ministry of Agriculture.
An interesting section within some versions of this Act required honey to be extracted in a place inaccessible to bees for the duration of the process and that when honey supers are transported, they must also be inaccessible to bees. When The Bee Diseases Act was eventually repealed and replaced by The Bee Act in 1972, this stipulation was removed; in this aspect, the successor legislation is weaker in controlling the spread of disease, as bee products like honey can be a vector.
In contrast to its predecessor, The Bee Act defined bees as European honey bees (Apis mellifera) and specifically named more diseases, including Nosema (microsporidian fungus) and Acarine (tracheal mites). All sales of bees and beekeeping equipment had to be reported to the head bee supervisor (now called the Provincial Apiculturist). Written permission from representatives of the Ministry of Agriculture was now required to import, sell, or dispose of bees and beekeeping equipment. The Minister received expanded powers, including the ability to designate any disease as a bee disease and order quarantines for any reason. If a disease was confirmed, bees could now be treated to eradicate it instead of destroyed. If treatment was ineffective, they had to be destroyed.
In 1995, The Bee Act was repealed and replaced by the Bee Act, with the current iteration still in force today. In 2003, the first version of Bee Regulation was passed. It designated a list of eight diseases encompassed by the phrase ‘bee diseases’ within the Act.
The Bee Act allows the Ministry’s apiculture inspectors to request beekeepers to produce records and documents pertinent to the Act and its implementation. Beekeepers must apply to the Provincial Apiculturist every year; their application must include the number of colonies and the municipalities where colonies are located, if live bees were purchased in the last year and from whom, and if they themselves have sold, gifted, or otherwise transferred bees to anyone else in the last year. Imported bees from other provinces and territories must be treated with pesticides approved by the Provincial Apiculturist, except those within 25 km of Alberta’s border in Saskatchewan or British Columbia. The most recent version also includes pests alongside diseases and parasites in the definition of bee diseases.
The Bee Regulation currently designates 15 bee diseases:
(a) American foulbrood (Paenibacillus larvae);
(b) European foulbrood (Melissococcus plutonius and associated bacteria);
(c) Chalkbrood (Ascosphaera apis);
(d) Nosema (Vairimorpha apis and Vairimorpha ceranae);
(e) Sacbrood virus (family Iflaviridae);
(f) Tracheal mites (Acarapis woodi);
(g) Varroa mites (Varroa destructor);
(h) Tropilaelaps (Tropilaelaps clareae and Tropilaelaps mercedesae);
(i) Small hive beetle (Athena tumida);
(j) Asian honey bee (Apis cerana);
(k) Giant honey bee (Apis dorsata);
(l) Cape bee (Apis mellifera capensis);
(m) Northern giant hornet (Vespa mandarinia);
(n) Asian hornet (Vespa soror and Vespa velutina);
(o) Africanized honey bee (Apis mellifera scutellata species hybrid).
Honey bee diseases can and do spill over into native bee populations. Akin to any other livestock animals, disease is more easily transmissible and concentrated in managed populations than compared to their wild counterparts, presenting a threat when they come into contact while foraging. Strengthening the Bee Act would better protect native bees AND honey bees from disease.
The Act also represents an opportunity to regulate other managed pollinators. Currently, bumble bees, leafcutter bees, and mason bees are used in specialized farm settings like greenhouses and orchards to pollinate. Much like honey bees, these managed populations host and transmit diseases, but in contrast, are self-regulated by industry. The Bee Act could either be amended to include all managed pollinator species or be used as a template to develop separate legislation to reduce the threat.
In consultation with the Alberta Lepidoptera Guild (ALG), members emphasized including native pollinators and pollinator habitats in environmental assessments, which would serve the dual purpose of improving protections for pollinators and help address the lack of quality species distribution and abundance data across the province:
“Environmental assessments for developments, whether required by law or only required by policy, should include a review of the pollinator communities and habitats potentially or known present, the potential pollinator and habitat impacts/benefits resulting from the development, potential impact mitigations, and residual impacts/benefits after implementation of mitigations. The level of detail would depend on the development size (hectares), habitat rarity (and therefore potential pollinator community rarity), and the degree of impacts/benefits. The objective would be to provide the Regulators with information to consider when deciding whether to approve a development, as with the existing environmental assessments for wetlands, water, vertebrates and plants” – Crispin Guppy, ALG.
Grande Prairie becomes the first Bee City in Northern Alberta.
The Alberta Native Bee Council is created to promote the conservation of native bees and address the lack of monitoring, research, and resources available for these species in the province.
Chestermere becomes the second Bee City in Canada after Toronto. Bee City Canada is a program created by Pollinator Partnership Canada to recognize cities, towns, First Nations, schools, businesses, and other organizations that are taking steps to protect and support pollinators.
The National Bee Diagnostic Centre opens in Beaverlodge, Alberta. It is the first of its kind in Canada, a laboratory dedicated to diagnosing an extensive array of honey bee and native bee pests, pathogens, and parasites.
The Bee Regulation is first passed, enabled by the Bee Act. It designates a list of diseases encompassed by the phrase ‘bee diseases’ within the Act.
The Alberta Lepidopterist Guild is established to support interest, enthusiasm, education, and research for butterfly and moth species in the province.
The Bee Act is repealed and replaced by the Bee Act, with its most current iteration in force today.
The Bee Diseases Act is repealed and replaced by The Bee Act. This Act defines bees as European honey bees (Apis mellifera) and names more diseases, including Nosema (microsporidian fungus) and Acarine (tracheal mites).
An Act for the Prevention and Treatment of Contagious Diseases among Bees, short-titled The Bee Diseases Act, is enacted by the Alberta Legislative Assembly. While not explicit, the act contextually refers to the care, keeping, and disease of non-native European honey bees (Apis mellifera).