Making bees matter

Photo courtesy of the United Nations

Cities are increasingly important refuges for critical pollinators, including bees. May 20 has been designated World Bee Day and home gardeners have their part to play in their survival.

According to the Nature Conservancy, Canada has over 800 bee species (450 species in British Columbia alone) from carpenter bees to sweat bees. Climate change, pesticide usage, habitat loss and parasitic diseases have contributed to an ongoing decline in both wild and managed pollinators.

Worldwide, 35 per cent of crop production depends on pollination. Bees and other pollinating insects play a crucial role in populations’ overall quality of life, yet urbanization has come at a cost to many insects, including bees. A rapid shift away from rural life has disturbed their habitat, making it more difficult for them to find enough food to survive. With the decline of pollinators and bees in particular, follows the decline of plants that depend on them for reproduction.

However, new research contradicts the belief that urban areas are inherently bad for biodiversity, especially when it comes to pollinators and cities must step in, in order to improve the livability of all pollinators.

In a large-scale study of 360 sites over two years – published in Nature Ecology and Evolution – U.K. researchers found that urban land can contribute to strong pollinator populations when done purposefully and in a correct manner: by putting pollinator conservation at the heart of urban planning.

Urban pollen hunting

U.K. research has demonstrated that home and community gardens are among bees’ favourite places to collect pollen, as they offer a wide range of fruit, flowers and vegetable flowers. The study also found urban gardens often attract up to 10 times more bees than places that would be typically considered bee havens: nature reserves, parks, cemeteries and other public green spaces. But bees are unable to thrive in environments consisting mostly of trees and turf.

Gardens in more affluent neighbourhoods also tend to have a greater number of pollinators due to a more varied assortment of plant life, especially flowers.

Knowing just what type of plants and flowers attract bees can help city dwellers get the formula just right and ensure successful pollinator-friendly gardens.

Plants that are usually considered weeds, such as dandelion and clover, can, in fact, help support bees. Dandelions are often the first flowers bees feed on in the early spring.

Better garden management, such as planting native flowers adapted to the local climate and ensuring pollinators can access a wide variety of flowers from spring through fall, can have a major impact on pollinators’ survival.

What’s happening closer to home?

According to the David Suzuki Foundation, Canada’s pollinators’ situation has been made more complicated by the presence of the European honeybee, an introduced species managed like livestock. Although they are good pollinators, many of Canada’s native bees have proven more effective but are often ignored.

In the Vancouver area, there are many bee lovers and a few organizations were founded in order to help urban bees survive. Hives for Humanity (H4H), a non-profit organization in the Downtown Eastside, is one of them. Through inclusive and supportive programming, their mission is to connect community through nature, bees and the culture of the hive.

On Vancouver Island, Plan Bee Now is also on a mission to save the bees. Their aim is to create ‘bee pastures’ by restoring large areas, lost to past development, assuring a foundation of food security and ecosystem health.

They also apply bee-friendly technology to lawns, gardens, parks, boulevards and rooftops including integrated city block and apartment planting projects. In rural areas, they apply pollinator-friendly technology to farm hedgerows, field borders, intercrop, rotations and cover crops.

Through small, simple acts to better manage urban yards and green spaces, people can help sustain the pollinators that sustain them.

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