Some people think of bees as something to be feared. But without bees, humans would not be able to survive. It's not just that they provide us with honey and wax; they are also one of the world's most important pollinators. (In fact, bees native to Canada do not produce honey; honeybees are imports — and not all bees sting!)
Close to 90 per cent of the world's plants rely on pollinators for fertilization and reproduction — including many of the plants we use for food. Beyond providing food, plants anchor soil to prevent erosion and fuel the nutrient cycle by decomposing and absorbing nutrients. Bees aren't the only pollinators; butterflies, hummingbirds, and bats, among other animals, provide pollination. But bees are the most common pollinators. If we lose the bees, we lose the plants, and if we lose the plants, well...
The problem is we are losing bees. European honeybees, which are now used for pollination around the world, are declining in number, as are native North American bees. We know some, but not all, of the causes. The biggest threat is habitat loss and destruction, as increasingly natural areas are developed for housing and shopping centres and sterile lawns. Pesticide use is also killing bees and other pollinators.
But we can help our buzzing buddies in a number of ways — and at least one solution is a lot of fun for you and your kids.
First, we can stop using harmful pesticides to keep our lawns and gardens looking pretty. A growing number of provinces and municipalities, including Ontario and Quebec, have been banning these pesticides, known as cosmetic pesticides, not just to protect pollinators but also to protect human health. As well, a number of large retail stores have voluntarily taken these chemicals off their shelves.
One of the most fun ways we can all work to keep bee populations healthy is to create homes and habitat for the insects. If you have a garden, even a small one on your balcony, you can fill it with plants and flowers that attract bees and other pollinators. And because bees are easy to please, almost any garden will attract them — but remember that native plants will attract native bees while exotic plants will attract honeybees. Choosing a variety of plants that bloom throughout the season will keep bees buzzing from spring through fall.
You can also build homes for bees. Different kinds of bees have different housing needs, and it's a great educational experience to learn how to build homes that will attract various types of bees. Canada is home to hundreds of bee species of all sizes. The smallest is the size of the head of a pin. Some live below ground, some above. And every species is beneficial to plants. The David Suzuki Foundation's Queen of Green, Lindsay Coulter, has instructions on the foundation's website on how to build three different kinds of bee dwelling, as well as a bee bath. It's easy, fun, and educational.
In my hometown of Vancouver, the Environmental Youth Alliance has even started a project to place mason-bee "condos" throughout the city. Mason bees, also known as blue orchard bees, are small, about the size of a housefly. They are called mason bees because they create rows of cells in their nests divided with walls of clay. They are great pollinators — a single female will visit as many as 17 flowers a minute.
Last year, the EYA handed out 100 bee condos, each housing 36 bees, for residents to place in their yards. This year, the group is putting large condos, housing from 72 to 720 bees each, in parks and public spaces around the city. One is even designed to look like an urban condo. The project has so far spread more than 8,000 bees across the city, with the hope that they will reproduce. Urban areas are centres for bee diversity because of the diversity of flowering plants, habitats, and landscapes.
As I often point out, everything in nature is interconnected. Bees are a crucial part of this interconnection. If bees start to disappear, the effects will cascade throughout ecosystems, affecting all life, including humans. We must do everything we can to ensure that bees survive and flourish. Our own survival depends on it.