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The buzz on bees

Only a tiny fraction of bees produce honey. Researcher Laurence Packer's mission is to learn everything he can about the vast majority that don't


Ask Laurence Packer about why he doesn’t study honey bees and he responds in an instant.

“All the world’s yearly research papers on honey bees would create a pile this tall,” he says, placing his hand at waist height – and a particularly high waist, since the pony-tailed York University professor of biology stands six feet four inches tall. “All the research on the rest of the world’s maybe 20,000 species comes to this,” he says, dropping his hand to his knees. “Do you see something wrong here?”

Even if you don’t, he does, and his sense of redressing the low status of bees that don’t produce honey has caused Dr. Packer to lead what might be called The Great Missing Bees Research Crusade. One context for understanding the mission is to see what he has not researched. He doesn’t know much about the great honey bee die-offs. And he has not gone to see the Jerry Seinfeld hit film Bee Movie. “I consider [honey bees] to be the enemy,” he says with a laugh, adding quickly, “That is a joke.”

What he is involved in is trying to get the Canadian Pollination Initiative up and running. If he’s successful, this would be a cross-country effort to study how the myriads of non-honey bees in Canada – more than 800 species – are silently contributing to both pollination in farmers’ fields and pollination of nature at large.

It is a general lack of appreciation of non-honey bees’ vital importance in keeping the plants of the world growing that explains much of the extreme paucity of research about them, Dr. Packer believes. “If honey bees would disappear we would be in trouble,” he says with deep seriousness. “But if honey bees are in trouble there are loads of other bees that could replace them, but nobody is interested in them.”

Even before the Canadian Pollination Initiative has been approved, one of his students is following up on research that showed that wild native bees in California are as effective pollinators on some organic farms as honey bees. The student has started to compare bee diversity and pollination effectiveness from organic and non-organic farms outside Toronto. In the two plant species that have been studied, having greater diversity of wild bee pollinators increases crop yields. “Diversity is really important,” says Dr. Packer.

He is also trying to change the way the Canadian government describes endangered species and how it plans for their recovery. When a plant is designated as endangered in Canada, says Dr. Packer, a “meaningless” catchphrase is often attached: “Pollinated by insects.” He says that if you want to save the plant, it’s crucial to know which insects are responsible for its pollination because the reproductive vitality of plants increases with visits from several pollinating species. “I am actually working to have the rules rewritten so the plant people have to find out what the pollinators are,” says Dr. Packer.

In his laboratory that literally overflows with boxed bee specimen collections, he shows off some neatly pinned bee species that look, not like a traditional honey or bumble bee, but more like wasps and flying ants and just plain flies. He is proud to point out that his laboratory is now becoming the de facto headquarters for all bee collections in Canada.

“Look up there and you will see the wild bee collection Mark Winston sent me,” he says, pointing to specimen cases piled on a high shelf. Dr. Winston was Canada’s leading honey bee researcher, who recently gave up his research to become academic director of the Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue at Simon Fraser University.

Giving ordinary bees their pollinator due isn’t Dr. Packer’s only effort to expand the bee world. He is also leading the efforts to produce a DNA species barcode for all the world’s bees. That barcode technique, developed by biologist Paul Hebert at the University of Guelph, allows a researcher to take a snippet of one gene and from that produce a species fingerprint – the species equivalent of a DNA parenthood test.

There are two reasons why bee species would benefit from a barcode name tag. “Most of the specimens in museums are not identified, and the ones that are identified are only 60 to 70 percent correctly identified,” says Dr. Packer, who remembers experiencing a loss of faith in taxonomic authority when, perusing the British Museum bee collection as an undergraduate, he realized that even that temple of bee taxonomy had misclassified some species in its display cases.

Using barcoding as their central indicator, Dr. Packer and PhD student Jason Gibbs have already found at least a dozen new bee species in Canada. Postdoctoral fellow Corey Sheffield has barcoded all the bee species of Nova Scotia. In aid of their efforts, Dr. Packer is applying for funding to bring the world’s leading bee scientists together in May to develop a plan to barcode all of the world’s bees.

The scientist is also moving into the realm of public relations in his efforts to improve the non-honey bee’s lowly status. He’s joined other bee experts in advising Sarah Peebles, a Toronto musician and performance artist who has composed music derived from bee movements; she now wants to use some of the barcoded DNA bee sequences and incorporate them into a multimedia presentation. With funding from the Suzuki Foundation, Dr. Packer is writing a popular booklet on the bees of Toronto, roughly 200 species in all, in which he plans to describe what kinds of trees and plants Torontonians might put in their gardens to encourage the greatest amount of bee diversity.

Dr. Packer’s fascination with bees goes back to his youth. He was born in East London, a furniture maker’s son whose cockney accent was so strong that he later feared he never would find a job in his field in class-conscious Britain. He decided to study bees while at Oxford University “because bees are beautiful. I later found out that they actually are interesting, but initially it was because those dull little boring brown things are spectacularly beautiful when you look under the microscope,” he recalls.

He came to Canada in 1981 on a NATO scholarship to do his PhD at the University of Toronto and was hired by York University in 1988. He almost missed his chance at the job when he arrived from the field too late to give his research talk. But when he spoke with characteristic humor and verve, the irritation at his being tardy melted.

“He’s always fun to talk to … he always pulls something funny out of his hat when he is lecturing,” says fellow bee lover Jerry Rozen of the American Museum of Natural History.

His students concur in spades. “He never uses notes, it’s like he is a talk-show host in the lectures,” says Milos Mihac, a fourth-year undergraduate.

Almost all of his students tell stories of watching their bee-infatuated professor being oblivious to hordes of mosquitoes, ants and other biting, stinging creatures in the quest to discover yet more bee specimens.

To be a Packer student means you can’t help but find yourself involved in intrinsically interesting and often physically challenging field work. Anne-Isabelle Gravel faced extreme collecting challenges in Patagonia, a bee-rich part of the world, in an area where the wind blew almost constantly, leading her and Dr. Packer to concoct on the fly a collection device that could be buried in the ground to keep it from toppling over.

Hien Ngo was recently in Costa Rica studying bee diversity in coffee fields. What came out of her research was an anomaly for all those who favor shade-grown coffee for its environmental benefits: There’s more bee diversity in open coffee fields than in treed ones, apparently because many bee species like to nest in the ground and there is more nest-able ground on farmland.

Closer to home, Sheila Colla is studying bumble bees in Southern Ontario and has found that one species – which 35 years ago made up 14 percent of bees in a certain area – has effectively disappeared. Her subsequent research has shown that, without anyone really noticing, the species has all but vanished from eastern North America.

Another tangent led to groundbreaking work by Dr. Packer and former PhD student Amro Zayed on an aspect of bee sexuality that might be killing off bees. The researchers discovered that a sex-determining mechanism that turns some female bees into sterile males means that bee species could go extinct 10 times faster than other creatures of similar population size.

So where does the bee-loving professor go from here? Asked about his future research, Dr. Packer lists bee sociobiology, bee conservation, bee systematics, bee biodiversity – that is to say, almost all things bee.

But it’s more fun to ask him what plot lines he would put into Bee Movie II – a sequel that would try to give screen time to the world’s ignored and undervalued non-honey bees. In a flash, Dr. Packer comes up with a half-dozen scenes, if not quite full scenarios. These include the activities of the territorial wool-carder bees, which protect themselves against bumble bees by butting them with their heads. If the honey bees don’t leave, the wool-carders bend their abdomens around them and crush them to death.

Or consider the antics of the so-called “sneaky fuckers” – a term coined by renowned evolutionist John Maynard Smith. These are male bees that have the facial markings of females. This transvestite-type trait allows them to sneak in among females without being attacked by dominant males.

And then there are cuckoo bees, which infiltrate the nests of other bees to lay their eggs. Some male cuckoo bees have developed smells that mimic the smells of females of the host species in order to entice these females to approach them. “In humans that would be the equivalent of smelling like a fabulous French meal,” Dr. Packer says with typical flourish.

But the best future plot may revolve around a species of social bees which, when put in close quarters, often act in a very antisocial way – they kill one another. He studied one Canadian bee population where the death rate was four percent, but in a group of the same species from the U.S., the murder rate was 40 percent. Why, Dr. Packer is asked?

“The working hypothesis,” he deadpans, “was lack of gun control and more violence on television.”

Had the bee-besotted Seinfeld been with us in the lab, I have no doubt he would have joined the students and me in giggling ourselves silly.

Stephen Strauss
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  1. dionne blyth / July 7, 2011 at 20:06

    i was wondering if you could tell me what kind of bee i saw today. It was black and white thick stipes, one single body piece and as fat and long as my thumb. i live in b.c. and have never seen this before. thanks.

  2. Dr Lorna Browne / June 7, 2014 at 03:16

    Prof Packer and research fellows, I need info regarding the affect of electromagnetic radation on the activity of the honey bee. We in Ireland are fighting the electricity comp putting down high intensity pyllons across are country. any help would be appreciated. Lorna Browne