“When I was trying to identify this group … it wasn’t making much sense to me,” said Sharkey, who attends the University of Guelph’s school of environmental sciences.
Eventually, she realized that the insect she was looking at under her microscope was the hibiscus or chimney bee — formally known as Ptilothrix bombiformis. The bee species is an American migrant and its arrival in Canada may be another example of how species are expanding their habitats due to climate change.
Now, Sharkey has published her first scientific paper in the Journal of the Entomological Society of Ontario outlining her discovery, which she made in 2019.
Sharkey had collected 2,000 bees from her traps in Ojibway Prairie Provincial Nature Reserve in 2018, six of which were female hibiscus bees. It was when she started comparing the species to known ones across North America, rather than just Ontario, that she realized the bees had never been seen before in Canada.
“I was pretty confident that my [identification] was correct … but I had to confirm with a few people and once that [identification] was verified, then I was quite happy,” she said.
“You never know what you’re going to find until you look for it and I was looking for it, so I’m glad I found something.”
Just by their appearance, Sharkey said she knew these bees were different. They have short, feathery yellow hairs on their thorax and long black hair on their hind legs.
The hibiscus bees nestle into hard-packed soil near wetlands and the population is one of few able to land on water, collecting it to build “distinctive turrets at its nest opening,” according to a news release from the University of Guelph. (This trait is what gives the bee its other common name, chimney.)
According to the university, insect collection curator Steve Paiero confirmed the insects were a new find for the park. Meanwhile, a curator at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum, Cory Sheffield, confirmed that this was a new sighting for Canada — bringing the number of bee species in the country to 927.
“If you take the time and effort to look, it’s amazing what you can find in the natural world, and this bee is just really interesting. It has this close relationship with the hibiscus plant,” Sharkey said.
“It just sort of gives us a window into the world of how complex bee communities, relationships with bees and plants are, and how important they are to different habitats.”
Sharkey added that the bee populations have likely been in Windsor-Essex gardens, and that they enjoy the hibiscus shrub Rose of Sharon.
The spotting of the bee, Sharkey said, has sparked some concern for its well-being and the hardships it may be facing.
“Just like all the other species of native bees, we’re concerned about impacts of climate change, habitat degradation, invasive species and pesticides,” she said.
— Jennifer La Grassa