Hello Spring

4 simple ways you can help save Canada's beautiful and important bumblebees

Canadian bees need more than their ‘built-in-parkas’ to save them. Here’s how we can help

Canadian bees need more than their ‘built-in-parkas’ to save them. Here’s how we can help

(iStock/schnuddel)

Nothing says spring like a fuzzy bumblebee nuzzling a flower. Their relatively large and fluffy bodies easily separate them from their more commercial cousins, the European honeybee. Of all our native pollinators in Canada, they are easily the most recognizable.

Canada is home to several species of bumblebees, which make up just a handful of the more than 800 types of wild bees that fly within our country. Bumblebees' furry coats and large bodies help them to fly in colder temperatures, allowing them to pollinate during the cool spring and fall months when many other pollinators are left grounded. But while these built-in parkas help bumblebees to take advantage of cool Canadian days, they don't do much to insulate these creatures against threats like habitat loss and climate change. 

The colour patterns on bumblebees can sometimes help tell different species apart, like this orange-belted bumblebee. (Peter Soroye)

Bumblebee numbers across the globe are in decline, and several of our Canadian species are under threat as well. 

One species, the rusty-patched bumblebee, used to be a common sighting across southern Ontario just a few decades ago. But due to a deadly combination of habitat loss, pesticides, climate change and disease introduced from commercial populations, the adorable rusty-patched bumblebee has almost completely disappeared from most of its range. In Canada, they haven't been seen for years despite heavy searching. In my research, I've found that climate change appears to be a big driver of bumblebee declines. Warming and more frequent extreme events (such as heat waves) are causing temperatures in many places to spike above what our bees can withstand, and all types of bees appear to be in decline as a result.  

Addressing climate change and habitat loss to save the bees (and the rest of our Canadian wildlife!) will take big action from our leaders in government. While we encourage those leaders to act, there are a few ways to begin helping wild bumblebees, starting in your own backyard. 

Pollination stations

Pollinator gardens are one great way to attract the native species that are already around you and provide them with some key habitat. Aside from being a buffet of food for bees and other pollinators to visit, well-planted gardens can be a place for bees to nest, spend the winter or even shelter from extreme events. Even small patches of habitat help and community gardens, balconies, or rooftops can all make creative alternatives if you don't have your own backyard.

Think local

Starting a pollinator garden begins with deciding what to plant, and the most inviting and helpful habitat for pollinators in your region will be the fauna native to where you live. Pollinator Partnership and BeeCity Canada are two great places to start looking for what wildflowers are local to your region. Local plant nurseries or garden stores near you may be able to help suggest some options as well. 

When choosing your plants, go for flowers that will be a variety of shapes and sizes and plants that will bloom at a variety of times throughout the year. This will help attract a mix of pollinators from bees to hummingbirds to clearwing moths and more, and will supply these pollinators throughout the whole year.

Embrace the mess!

Nature keeps things messy in the wild, and you should do the same in your pollinator garden. Piles of leaves and rotting logs can provide places for bees to shelter and spend the winter, so consider leaving at least some patches of your pollinator garden "au naturel" year-round for bees to use. 

Many bees dig nests underground, so avoid using heavy amounts of mulch that might block their access to the ground. 

Learn to love the dandelions and other "weeds" that might pop up in your garden. While using pesticides or herbicides to control what grows might seem fair after the hard work you put in carefully selecting your plants, these chemicals can harm bees and other pollinators (and incidentally, dandelions are great sources of springtime nectar for bees!). 

Choosing native wildflowers will attract a whole host of helpful pollinators. (Peter Soroye)

Welcome and identify the visitors

Once your pollinator garden is in place, the really fun part begins: meeting all the visitors. You might be surprised by the diversity of bees and other pollinators that stop by. Most bees are quite gentle and will avoid using their stingers, making them great models to photograph with a smartphone or other camera.  

Uploading your photos to community science programs like iNaturalist or BumblebeeWatch is a great way to identify and learn more about these important creatures. Since the information collected from these programs gets sent to scientists around the world, it's also one more way to help save them. 

Planting pollinator gardens and contributing to community science might seem like small actions, but they can add up to make a big difference for bees. That's important because without these beautiful, parka-wearing pollinators, our backyards, wild places and dinner plates would all be a lot less colourful, exciting and flavourful. 


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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Peter Soroye is a conservation biologist and PhD student at the University of Ottawa. Peter studies the impacts of climate change and habitat loss on biodiversity across the globe, with the goal of informing conservation management and policy to find more effective ways of protecting species and reversing declines of biodiversity. He’s also a big proponent of community science, science communication and diversity in STEM. Read more about Peter and his work at www.petersoroye.com or on Twitter @PeterSoroye.

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