Ottawa's Fletcher Wildlife Garden on Prince of Wales Drive is a popular place for bird watchers, dog walkers and anyone who likes to experience the diversity of nature in an urban setting. 

Michel Monette, an amateur naturalist, visits every summer to cycle around the garden's trails and take photos. He's noticed that in recent years the number of bumblebees has declined.

"You can spend an hour watching and you'll see one, two, three, where in past years there would be 30 or 40. And they'd be bumping into each other. I have pictures of them on top of the flower heads crawling all over each other, compared to now," says Monette.

Sandra Garland, a volunteer at the garden, has also noticed a dip in the number of visiting bumblebees — the larger, fuzzier cousin of the honey bee, whose decline is well documented

"Yes, we used to have a lot more bumble bees. When I was a child there was a vacant lot up the street. The plants would be swarming with bees. You just don't see that anymore."

Bees play key role

As pollinators, bumblebees, like honey bees, play a key role in the ecosystem.

"Bees are absolutely essential for pollinating flowers and vegetables," says Beatrice Olivastri, CEO of Friends of the Earth Canada. "For our food security we absolutely need bees."

Summer students photographing bumble bees

David Van Olst and Mireille Gauthier track bumblebees at Ottawa's Fletcher Wildlife Garden.

Olivastri says despite their importance there is very little scientific monitoring of Canada bumblebee population.

That's where the Great Canadian Bumble Bee Count comes in. Think of it as a bumblebee census that relies on visual evidence to gauge the health of the population.

With financial support from the federal government's Canada Summer Jobs grant and the Community Foundation of Ottawa, Olivastri and a group of students have been busy encouraging people to use their digital cameras and smartphones to document bumblebees.  

The photos are uploaded to an international organization called Bumble Bee Watch. Experts with the organization examine the photos to identify the species of bee and catalogue where it was found. 

Disappearing species

According to Olivastri there are more than 40 species of bumblebees in Canada, including at least one that's endangered.

"For example, here in Ontario we used to have a very common bumblebee called the rusty-patched bumblebee... The last time it was seen was back in 2009."

Beatrice Olivastri, CEO of Friends of the Earth, Ottawa

Beatrice Olivastri, CEO of Friends of the Earth Ottawa, says people need to be concerned about the fate of wild bees.

Olivastri blames the apparent decline in bumblebees on a variety of issues including habitat loss, pesticides, disease and climate change.

"When you think about the amount of foods that actually benefit from wild pollinators and how much we depend on bees, it's important that we provide the data to help scientists protect them,"  says David Van Olst, a student who plans to study environmental management at Algonquin College.

Gardeners urged to 'let it be'

Olivastri and her students say anyone with a garden can do their part to help the valuable insects. In fact when it comes to gardening, they encourage bee lovers to "let it be." 

"You basically don't need to do as much maintenance on your garden because bees like it the way it is,"  says Nathalin Moy, an engineering student from Toronto.

Garden volunteer Sandra Garland says the worst thing gardeners can do is plant non-native species that the bees don't recognize.

"The native insects are looking for the native species they are used to. And if we replace those native species with exotics from Asia or whereever we are destroying their habitat."

The Great Canadian Bumble Bee count will continue until August 15. Friends of the Earth plan to publish the findings in the fall to coincide with a new campaign urging better protection for wild bees.