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Take a Closer Look – it’s Un-Bee-lievable!

Saskatchewan is home to some fantastic landscapes and scenery. Whether it is our northern boreal forests, prairie grasslands, river valleys, the Great Sandhills or the Athabasca Basin, a wide array of creatures big and small call our province home.

Sometimes we find them buzzing around in the air or crawling on plants and trees. Other times you may even have them wandering across your arm or leg.

Yes, the province is also home to a diverse variety of insects, and they are excellent indicators of the health of our environment and ecosystems.

Making sense of these unique relationships – and the role these tiny creatures play – are researchers and biologists like Dr. Cory Sheffield of the Royal Saskatchewan Museum (RSM).

In this article, we will share his story.

Dr. Cory Sheffield holding an insect specimen collection jar.

A Bug's Life

Dr. Sheffield is the RSM’s Curator of Invertebrate Zoology and would be considered a fan of all things creepy crawly.

As a kid growing up in Nova Scotia, his interests were centred around nature and science. When he became more interested in plants and animals, biology seemed like the best career path.

“To this day, all sciences interest me, though natural history will always be a passion for me,” Dr. Sheffield explained. “As an undergraduate student, I started studying plant and pollinator interactions, and then I focused on insect pollinators. So, my main area became entomology, or the study of insects.”

Sheffield is most interested in studying bees and wasps.

In 2023, Sheffield and his team uncovered a specimen of a rare bee species last found in Saskatchewan more than 65 years ago. RSM researchers made the discovery while processing insect samples collected in 2013 near Grasslands National Park, close to Wood Mountain.

The Macropis Cuckoo Bee was once thought to be extinct globally until it was rediscovered in Nova Scotia by Dr. Sheffield in the early 2000s.

Importance of Pollinators

Because pollinators such as bees and wasps play such an important role in our ecosystems, economies and agriculture, they need to be monitored.

Over the last decade, concerns have surfaced regarding the impact that declining pollinator populations could have on the agriculture sector and the environment.

“At the most basic level, we share the planet with all life,” Dr. Sheffield explained. “So, when other species start to become threatened with extinction, it should start raising alarms that ecosystems may be in trouble.”

Bees play a vital role in both natural and agricultural systems as pollinators – threats to them are threats to food security for humans and other wildlife.

“Increasing our knowledge of the province’s pollinators and bee species and their requirements helps to protect them. We really need to know what these species need and what the potential threats are to help protect them,” he said.

Dr. Cory Sheffield holding a bee at Savary Island

Education and Outreach

Every year, National Pollinators Week is celebrated across the country – this year it is being marked from June 17 to 23.

With various community events taking place, there are steps that the public can take to help encourage and conserve pollinators.

“Gardening for pollinators is a very good idea,” he said. “If you like hiking or being outdoors, take photos of insects, plants and other wildlife and upload these observations to iNaturalist – you can increase your knowledge of local biodiversity and contribute data to conservation initiatives.”

The use of apps like iNaturalist allows anyone to contribute directly to science projects where documenting species is involved.

To give the public a close-up view of some of the tiny creatures occurring in the province, the RSM opened the Take a Closer Look Exhibit. The exhibit focuses on tiny invertebrate animals such as insects and spiders and brings them into focus at a size most visitors wouldn’t have ever experienced.

“Once these insects are enlarged, they look very strange and exotic. Actual specimens that were photographed are included in the display to give visitors a frame of reference of their small size,” he explained.

The variety of specimens selected for the exhibit helps to tell interesting stories about their unique biology and anatomy.

Making a Difference

Dr. Sheffield is in his 12th year at the RSM and is widely considered to be one of the top authorities on bees in North America.

Dr. Cory Sheffield looking to catch bumble bees with a net

“I certainly feel lucky to work on topics that have been dear to me for most of my life, so having a career at a museum is about as good as it gets,” Sheffield said. “However, the team that we have at the RSM in Research & Collections, Exhibits and Programming makes working here even better.”

Working in a place where employees, students and volunteers have many of the same passions – but also bring unique perspectives and skills to the museum – makes every day rewarding for Sheffield.

With many areas of the province still needing further study, there are likely dozens of undocumented bee species living here.

“When I arrived here in 2012, I had an idea of how many bee species were here – maybe 160 species – and this has continued to grow yearly,” Sheffield noted. “Even species new to science are being found here. We have now found more than 300 bee species living in Saskatchewan.”

While they don’t know how many insect species there are, RSM researchers will continue to explore and document their discoveries – helping to protect our province’s environment and ecosystems for future generations.

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