A rare species of bee that was last seen in Saskatchewan in the 1950s, and was once considered extinct, has again been found in Saskatchewan.  

Researchers at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum announced Wednesday they had found, for the first time since 1955, a specimen of the Macropis Cuckoo Bee in Saskatchewan. The specimen had been collected during a BioBlitz near Grassland National Park in 2013 but was cataloged and confirmed as being the rare species this summer.  

“In North America, this species was thought to be extinct, and it so happened that I was the one that actually rediscovered it in Nova Scotia in the early 2000s, which not only confirmed that it wasn’t extinct but it also was the first time it had been found in Maritime Canada,” explained Dr. Cory Sheffield. He is the curator of invertebrate zoology at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum. “I compiled all the records for that species, and we realized that in Canada alone, there were only a handful of records that went back to the late 1800s.” 

The bee that was discovered is called a cuckoo bee and is considered to be what is known as a kleptoparasitic bee. This means that it has a host species that it steals food and resources from. 

“A cuckoo bee is also dependent on pollen and nectar, but it doesn’t collect the pollen itself,” Sheffield clarified about the naming of the insect. “Instead, it sneaks into the nest of another bee, which I’ll call its host bee, and it lays its eggs in there, and then its offspring, the larvae, will hatch and they will consume the food that was left for the host’s offspring.” 

The bee itself is extremely rare, with only two species in the genus – the one discovered here in Saskatchewan, and the other being found in Europe. The scarcity of the bee itself is in part due to the host bee, called the Marcopus nuda. This host is the only species of bee in Canada that not only collects nectar and pollen but also the oils from a specific plant, the fringed loosestrife. The bee visits these flowers, collects the oils and other things, and brings them back to the nest where the offspring of the cuckoo bee feed off it.

The macropis cuckoo beeThe macropis cuckoo bee was thought to be extinct. (Photo courtesy Saskatchewan Ministry of Parks, Culture and Sport)

With the lifecycle and diet of both species of bees being so specific, it meant that researchers who were looking to determine if the marcopis cuckoo bee even existed anymore would need to look for the fringed loosestrife, and then go from there.  

“If you lose a local population of those flowers, then of course, the bees are going to be lost as well,” Sheffield said.  

The discovery this summer came about as undergraduate students working at the museum were going through and processing the samples from the 2013 BioBlitz that had yet to be cataloged. It was then that the discovery was made. 

“I was walking by one of their desks, and I always take a look at what they’re pinning and stuff, and I said ‘Oh, that one looks interesting,’” Sheffield shared. “So, I picked it up, looked at it under a microscope and said ‘This is the one we’ve been looking for for the last several years, and we were very excited about it because this species is in the process right now of being reassessed as an endangered species in Canada.’” 

The next step in the research will be to get everything written and prepared for the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada. This is the group that takes data from the previous ten years to make a decision on how to classify something as being endangered, at-risk, and so forth. The last time this particular insect was evaluated, there were few samples, but now, recent finds, including the one here in Saskatchewan, could result in some changes.  

“We know this species is very widespread in Canada, and some of the areas that we have found the species suggest that some of the habitats or areas where it occurs are probably areas that are, from a standpoint of maintaining its population, are pretty good because places like Wood Mountain are near the National Park down in that area,” Sheffield said. The teams from the museum will continue to look for the specific flower the host bee feeds off of, which can help them locate the marcopis cuckoo bee. 

“Then what we learn about the places where the bee occurs in terms of what type of habitat, what’s the vegetation like there, we can start using that information when we write these assessment reports to help guide its assessment but also make recovery strategies like what can we do to make sure that we maintain this species.” 

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