Bumble bees, richness where some just see “bugs”

I could have written this post about just about any living thing, but I’m predisposed to notice and care about bumble bees, which I studied during my MSc in Ontario and Colorado. This spring, worried about the lack of bumble bees in my area, I contacted a former lab-mate, now a professor at York University, about what I could do to help pollinators beyond making my garden more hospitable. By coincidence, she had just posted these recommendations on Twitter, and drew my attention in particular to participating in the Citizen Science project Bumble Bee Watch. The data such projects provide to conservation biologists is invaluable, I’m told; and I’ve found it strangely addictive to generate such data for them.

It’s become a bit of an obsession, actually. I now walk around with a camera and exasperate my family by stopping everywhere to take multiple photos of bumble bees. Some are reproduced here, all the photos above and below having been taken since July 2021, across Ontario and Quebec (for IDs and locations, look up my name on Bumble Bee Watch). I also have bumble bee photos dating back to 2002, from my field work and my subsequent ability to care about and notice bumble bees, the many species that coexist and differ subtly in colour pattern and behaviour, and the plants they visit. Bumble bees strike me as the most personable and psychologically interesting of insects, but maybe that’s just because I’ve paid attention to them.

It’s a particular thrill, when something that was just generalized (“bees” or even “bugs”) becomes particularized (“bumble bees” or even “Bombus impatiens,” and beyond that “Bombus impatiens male, or worker, or queen”). I can imagine a Borges short story, in which a character develops the ability to see everything in its absolute particularity. No doubt that would be a curse, and a problem for science. But seeing species only generically–such as my friend who can’t differentiate roses from daffodils, seeing them both simply as “flowers”–is also a curse, both for the beholder and for their community.

I remember playing in the lawn in the backyard when I was about 7 years old, and noticing, quite suddenly, that what had seemed like a uniform carpet of self-same grass was in fact a patchwork of many greens–not just grass, but moss, creeping plants (Creeping Charlie?), and other plants with tiny leaves and flowers.

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