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Hort Society: Create some buzz with the right conditions in your garden 

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Maura Hamill

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I know spring is really on its way when I start to see bumblebee queens buzzing around my garden, moving slow and low, searching for a suitable location to build a nest for this year’s bumblebee brood. To me, their appearance announces the renewal of life in the animal, plant, and bug kingdoms.

Alberta is home to over 300 native bee species, including 27 bumblebee species. Native bees are bees that have evolved in a specific region and adapted to the climate and forage of that region. They can be social, but many of them are solitary. Honeybees are not native to Alberta and cannot survive our winters. They are introduced bees, managed for agricultural purposes. Although they also face problems, their populations are managed by people. Our native bees do not have that same support system, so that is why they need some help from us.

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Globally, 30 per cent of native bees are facing extinction, caused by many factors. Climate change, with increased temperatures and more severe droughts, messes up bee emergence times and reduces their available nectar sources. Habitat loss and fragmentation reduce nesting sites and access to food. Excessive and inappropriate use of pesticides kills bees and bugs in addition to being harmful to birds and humans.

Why should we care if bees become extinct? Well, it’s because we all need food to survive. Over three-quarters of wild flowering plants and one-third of the foods we eat depend on insect pollination.

To survive, our native bees also need food. Nectar provides a source of energy, while pollen provides a combination of protein, amino acids, and minerals. They need spots to nest, which will depend on the kind of bee, but it helps to leave open ground for nests, or leave existing holes in the earth (bumblebees are particularly fond of old mouse nests).

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A Hunt’s bumblebee on liatris spicata. Photo by Maura Hamill
A Hunt’s bumblebee on liatris spicata. Photo by Maura Hamill jpg

What can we as gardeners do to help our native bee friends?

Plant pollinator-friendly plants. Even just one pot of lavender will help. I was amazed at how just a few plants made a difference to the number of bees who visited my yard. Plant an all-season buffet. Bees need flowers from early spring to the fall, not just during the summer.

Allow your dandelions to flower in the spring. They will feed the first hungry bees emerging from hibernation. (Once other plants start blooming you can deal with the dandelions!)

Resist perfection. Let things get a little wild and leave your leaf mulch into June. Cleaning up your yard too early kills many bugs who are still hibernating, like ladybugs and other beneficial insects.

Plant bee-friendly flowers instead of becoming a beekeeper and you will also help many other bug populations that are also in decline. Charlotte de Keyzer, a Toronto bee researcher, says keeping managed honeybees because you think you are saving bees “is a bit like saying that you’re going to save the birds of Canada by keeping chickens in your backyard.”

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Avoid pesticides. Pesticides kill bees, bugs, and birds. Rely on native predators to get the job done.

Leave bare loose soil near your pollinator garden. This will help ground-nesting bees.

What kinds of plants do native bees like?

Bumblebees are attracted to yellow, purple, blue, and white blooms. Simple flowers that are single-petalled, flat, and open, like the flowers of cosmos, daisies, and sunflowers. Bees can’t access the nectar, if it is produced, in complex double blooms.

Plant native plants and aim for a wide variety. Lacy phacelia (Phacelia tanacetifolia), borage, and late summer blooming blazing star (Liatris spicata) are bee favourites. When you buy new plants, look for plant labels that say “attractive to bees.” Observe what works and what doesn’t and adjust plant choices accordingly.

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With just a few adaptations, your garden will be abuzz with bees from early spring until fall. I know once you have caught the bee bug, you will plant more bee-friendly plants and will start searching out new resources to learn more about our native bees. And don’t worry – bumblebees and other native species are gentle bees and rarely sting, and male bumblebees don’t sting at all!

To read about native bees and to participate in a citizen scientist project, visit the University of Calgary Bee a Citizen Scientist page. This year they’d like gardeners to participate and let them know which plants are attracting bees to their gardens.

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