A Sweet Perspective

by: Carolyn Davies, Director: Pollinate Collingwood

Bees are important. We’ve heard over and over again that bees are declining so we should do what we can to help them, right?

Absolutely! Bees and other pollinators are experiencing an unprecedented number of challenges and many species are declining – in fact, some have already disappeared. So how do we help them? Should we all consider keeping bees in our backyards?

Let’s pause this discussion, and switch directions for a moment to consider the declining populations of songbirds, which are also experiencing many challenges. Due to light pollution, habitat loss, pesticide poisoning, car collisions, impacts to glass buildings, and many other issues, various species are declining and are unable to reproduce at a rate to compensate for these losses. So, we should all keep chickens in our backyards to support declining birds, right? 

Sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? 

Keeping European honey bees (Apis mellifera), a non-native species of agricultural livestock, does NOT help populations of declining native bees. In fact, there is research suggesting the opposite – that honey bee colonies can actually compete for resources with native bees. One of the reasons for this is the size of a honey bee colony, which can have upwards of 50,000 or more individual bees. 

These bees are generalist foragers, which means that they will collect the pollen and nectar from just about any flower available. This makes them very successful in their goal to collect enough food to overwinter, but not particularly successful at pollinating plants, which requires that the pollen transferred between flowers is from the same species. 

While it’s impossible to know how many honey bees there are, one report estimates that there are millions of honey bee colonies in North America. If each one has 30,000 individuals, then there are three times more honey bees than there are people!

How are native bees different?

Canada is home to over 800 species of native bees and we have over 350 species that are native to southern Ontario. Around 30% of these bees are oligolectic, which means that they are specialized to only collect the pollen and/or nectar of a very small number of closely related plants in the same genus or family. This makes native bees very efficient at pollinating plants! In fact, there is scientific research that indicates that native bees are better than honey bees at pollinating many of our crops too, like tomatoes, blueberries, apples, squash, beans, and more!

In addition, native bees have fewer offspring, do not create large colonies, and do not remain active during the winter. But it’s impossible to make generalizations as there are over 350 species that are native to southern Ontario (that’s almost double the number of mammal species that are native to southern Ontario!), so let’s take a closer look at one of the most recognizable native bee species – the common eastern bumblebee (Bombus impatiens) – as a case study.

B. impatiens is one of the largest of our 18 native Ontario bumblebee species. This species is certainly not the earliest to emerge after winter, but can easily become the most common in many regions. The common eastern bumblebee species is highly adaptable and can be found deep in old-growth forests or foraging on the edge of expansive parking lots. Like other bumblebees, they have an annual colony cycle in which the colony only survives for a single growing season and the queen for only a single year. Their colonies could be located in an old mouse burrow, a space under some fallen grasses and other vegetation, in a hollow log, or even under a deck.

If very successful, a wild colony could produce as many as 200 offspring – but this is not common. At the end of the summer, the colony will switch to producing males and new queens, who will need to find a mate and a small burrow to overwinter. After the winter, the daughter queen will emerge to forage and initiate her own colony…

And what about the other bees?

Well, there are ground nesters that excavate tunnels in the soil, stem dwellers that lay their eggs in the hollowed-out pithy stem of raspberry canes, leafcutters that line their cells with layers of circular-cut leaves, cavity dwellers that defend tiny holes in dead wood, cleptoparasites that lay their eggs in the nests of others and steal each others’ pollen…. As I said, it’s impossible to generalize!

The take-home message here is that honey bees make honey – if you want honey, look into beekeeping. Take some courses, get some training, do it right. If you aren’t very careful, you could contribute to the spread of bee diseases into wild native bee populations. This is another reason why it’s best to confine honey bees to agricultural settings, and not in our backyards!

If you want to save the bees: plant some native plants, leave spent stems for those stem dwellers, leave bare patches of soil for the ground nesters, add an old log for cavity nesters, and of course – don’t spray any pesticide or fertilizer! Ever. 

For more information on where to find native plants, check out the “Plan for Pollinators” page on the Pollinate Collingwood website. On this page, you will find ready-to-go garden designs, tips for planning, resources, and links for local native plant nurseries.

Are you wanting to add more native plants, but don’t know where to start?? Looking for a way to spread the word to your school group, garden club, or other organization? I’ve heard this need over and over, so I’ve begun to try to fill this gap with my new business – Thickett EcoScaping. Check out my website, or join me on Instagram!

And if you are really set on beekeeping, find out about honey bee husbandry, registering your hives, and regulations in Ontario here: Find out more about beekeeping in Ontario… and make sure you are purchasing your hives from a certified breeder!

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