Saturday, May 21, 2016

Get a bee in your bonnet

I have received something of an education in bees recently, courtesy of an article in the local paper. We probably all think we know bees. They live in hives, produce honey, and occasionally sting us when we come across them unexpectedly in a garden or in the city, right? Oh, and they are all mysteriously dying off, aren't they?
Setting aside the fact that you are much more likely to be stung by a wasp than a bee - although many people, I have noticed, actually call wasps "bees" - it seems like many of us are labouring under several false apprehensions when it comes to bees.
Most bees don't live in hives (and don't even live in groups), they don't make honey, and many don't even sting. It is honey bees that live in managed hives, usually on farms, and make honey, usually for farmers. But honey bees are a non-native invasive species, competing against local indigenous bees for access to flowers, and often spreading diseases and parasites (especially since the recent, unregulated rise in hobby beekeeping).
Apparently, though, there are over 360 species of native bees in the Toronto area alone, and it is not unusual for some 40 different species to visit a single garden in a single day. Leaf-cutter bees, mining bees, bumble bees, sweat bees - you have probably walked past these and many others. They are vital for biodiversity, and for the pollination of plants and crops.
And, like the better-known problems besetting the commercial honey bee populations, they too are under threat from man-made pollution, pesticides and insecticides. In fact, the many small populations of wild bees are probably in even worse shape than the ubiquitous European honey bee. Although the good burghers of Toronto had the foresight to ban lawn herbicides and insecticides back in 2003, such chemicals still find their way into city gardens through nursery-grown flowers and compost, and many species of bees are currently struggling.
The best thing we can do for native bees is to: plant native perennials, especially simple open flowers rather than those with densely-packed petals like roses; leave patches of bare or disturbed ground, as well as twigs and decaying logs for them to nest in; buy organically-grown plants that don't contain traces of neonicotinoids or other pesticides favoured by the horticultural industry; and not be over-zealous on mulching, pruning and spraying. Local organizations and campaigns like Bee City Canada, Let It Bee and others can help you navigate all of these considerations in your own garden.

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