Some people think nature is "out there", in a national park or other designated wilderness area. But bees, our most important pollinators, love to live in urban settings where there are short flight paths, and a variety of different plants and flowers to sample. In fact, bees are more likely to thrive in your backyard, community or patio garden, and on mixed farms than on acres devoted to single crops.
We've all heard about the mysterious global disappearance of honeybees. Other bee species are also declining, mainly because of habitat loss. You can make a big difference just by creating a bee-friendly space in your garden. (And it's not hard — bees are easy to please!)
Create a welcome place for bees
- All creatures that eat plants (including humans!) depend on pollinators.
- ¾ of the foods we eat — fruits, nuts, vegetables, and herbs — need pollinators to reproduce.
- Creating hospitable homes for beneficial insects in your garden means they are less likely to move into your house.
- You'll triple the yield of fruit and veggies in your garden — no more lumpy strawberries or shrunken squash!
- Even what seems like a small contribution — just a tiny flower pot or patch — can provide valuable pollinator habitat.
Attract bees to your backyard or garden
Build a bee house
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. Every single species is beneficial to plants.
About the size of houseflies, Blue Orchard bees (Osmia lignaria aka "mason bees") are so named because they create rows of cells in their nests divided with walls of clay. A single female will visit as many as 17 flowers per minute.
- House walls: an empty milk carton (waterproof) with the spout cut off — leave the bottom intact — or a box about that size made of wood scraps (not cedar).
- Paint a wooden house a bright colour with exterior zero- or low-VOC (volatile organic compounds) paint. At first, the bees will fly around taking mental "snapshots" of their potential new home, but they'll soon learn to make a bee-line to their new abode. If you plan to make more than one bee house, be sure they're different colours.
- Fill the box with layered stacks of brown paper nest tubes, which you can buy at a garden store. Cut the tubes to six inches (15.75 cm) long, closing the end with tape or a staple, or fold them in half. Commercial nest tubes are 5/16 of an inch (.79 cm) in diameter, the exact size of an HB pencil. Make your own by rolling a piece of brown paper around a pencil, then pinch off the end and seal it with tape.
- Hang the house somewhere out of the rain, facing south or east, at eye level, once the temperature outside has warmed to 12-14º C (54-57º F).
- Dig down below your garden soil adjacent to your bee house until you expose the clay layer, or keep a bowl of moist clay near your bee house for the masons to use as construction material.
- It may take a full season for the bees to find your house. If you don't have any luck attracting locals, you can also purchase mason bees from a garden store or local bee keeper.
Provide nutritious bee food
Bees eat two things: nectar (loaded with sugar, it's a bee's main source of energy) and pollen (which provides proteins and fats).
- Choose a variety of plants that flower at different times so there's always a snack available for when bees are out and about. (Rule: native plants attract native bees and exotic plants attract honeybees.)
- Flowers bred to please the human eye (for things like size and complexity) are sometimes sterile and of little use to pollinators. Native plants or heirloom varieties are best.
- Bees have good colour vision — that's why flowers are so showy! They especially like blue, purple, violet, white and yellow. Plant flowers of a single species in clumps about four feet in diameter instead of in scatterings so bees are more likely to find them.
- Bee species all have different tongue lengths — adaptations to different flowers, so a variety of flower shapes will benefit a diversity of bees.
These plants, organized by when they bloom, are just a few of the species native to Canada that attract bees:
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Make a bee bath
Bees and other beneficial insects — ladybugs, butterflies, and predatory wasps — all need fresh water to drink but most can't land in a conventional bird bath without crashing. "They're like tanks with wings," says bee master Brian Campbell. "They need islands in the water to touch down on."
- Line a shallow bowl or plate with rocks.
- Add water, but leave the rocks as dry islands to serve as landing pads.
- Place the bath at the ground level in your garden. (Put it near "problem plants" — those that get aphids, for example — and the beneficial insects that come to drink will look after them.)
- Refresh the water daily, adding just enough to evaporate by day's end.