Not just honey bees

When most people think of pollinators, they think of honey bees. They’re actually an introduced species from Europe used for pollinating agricultural crops, and producing beeswax and honey. You’ve probably heard that honey bees are suffering, especially from parasites, diseases, and pesticide use. Lucky for us, they have their bee keepers to care and advocate for them, and lots of researchers studying how to help them. For interesting news on current bee research, listen to the PolliNation podcast from Oregon State University.

I don’t have a honey bee hive, but they do visit my garden. According to an Ottawa Citizen article, “From O-Town to Bee City? There’s a buzz about beekeeping in the capital“, Ottawa zoning by-laws allow bee hives only in rural areas, not within the city. The Ontario Bees Act prohibits beehives near dwellings, community centres and parks. Regardless, people are keeping honey bees in Ottawa unhindered, unless there are complaints. It is encouraging to see that so many people care about the plight of pollinators and want to help them.

Fortunately, you don’t need to become a beekeeper to help pollinators. You can create a garden that will help all pollinators: honey bees, as well as butterflies, bumblebees, and the many other kinds of native bees that already live in our midst.

Native bees need help too

Before I began learning about pollinator gardening, I had no idea that there are around 400 different kinds of native, wild bee species in Ontario. I had noticed bumblebees, and metallic, green sweat bees, but that was about it. Native bees actually vary greatly in size and appearance. These beautiful posters from the Pollinator Partnership and author Heather Holm illustrate the incredible diversity of native bees throughout North America. There is comparatively little attention paid to native bees, or information known about them.

Like most insects all over the world, their populations are declining. In fact, some research is showing that honey bees may actually harm native bee populations by out-competing them for food resources. This article from NPR, Honeybees Help Farmers, but They Don’t Help the Environment, summarizes the issue.

According to this Habitat Network article Do Honey Bees Compete with Native Bees?, honey bees and native bees can co-exist as long as there aren’t too many honey bees. A recent scientific study, Honeybees disrupt the structure and functionality of plant-pollinator networks, confirms that too many honey bees cause native bee numbers and diversity to decline in natural areas. Then, the native plants they usually pollinate aren’t pollinated as well and don’t produce as many seeds.

To ensure that native bees have a chance to survive and thrive, we should also provide habitat and native plants that cater to their unique needs. So, my pollinator garden is designed for native bees, and other native pollinators like butterflies. In my garden, I have noticed that honey bees prefer non-native plants, while the native bees favour native pollen and nectar sources. I like to think that by including a variety of flowers, I am helping all the pollinators that visit my garden.

Native bees as food crop pollinators

Native bees have co-evolved with native plants, so they are perfectly suited to pollinate them. We need native bees for our flowering tree and wildflower populations to survive.

Interestingly, some native bees are also used to pollinate agricultural crops. The Native Pollinators in Agriculture Project estimates that 15% of agricultural pollination is done by native bees. Declines in honey bee populations has motivated researchers to study alternate pollinators more.

Native bees are efficient, and sometimes specialized, pollinators for squash, blueberries, alfalfa, apples, and more. Native mason bees are even known as blue orchard bees because they are such good pollinators in apple orchards. Wooden bee houses, like the ones we often see for sale in stores, are used in orchards to house mason bee nests. Last year, I first noticed mason bees in my garden, but I don’t know where they nest. Common Eastern bumblebees are frequently used as pollinators in commercial greenhouses for plants like tomatoes.