A few years ago, I made a pitch to city officials, asking them to officially designate Ottawa as a “Bee City.” Even though it didn’t happen, some good things emerged.
Among them, an invitation arrived unexpectedly to assist a young PhD candidate at the University of Ottawa, Lydia Wong, with her research on native bees. Unlike honey bees, which are non-native to North America, native bees do not produce copious amounts of honey and rarely sting. They play an important role in biodiversity, although some species are in decline.Lydia was looking for a few pollinator-friendly gardens around Ottawa. My own garden, certified with Monarch Watch and the Canadian Wildlife Federation, qualified. Luckily for me, I was assigned the role of a Citizen Scientist. This spring, after two years of having several bee boxes in my garden, designed specifically for her research, Lydia shared the good news that there were lots of baby bees in these nesting boxes last summer.
Most babies were mason bees—small, gentle bees that rarely, if ever, sting. In fact, the males cannot sting at all. Her baby bee nursery in my garden held 55 baby mason bees, weighing in at normal weights of between 18 and 67 milligrams.
There also were four leafcutter bee babies, an important North American native pollinator. They are called leafcutter bees because they cut small pieces of leaves to line their nests. Most exciting, because they are less common, Lydia reported eight baby resin bees. These bees collect sap from coniferous trees to build their nests.
Once the babies are weighed and measured, Lydia always returns them to my property to release them back into the wild. That was part of our agreement; no bees would be harmed from my yard in doing this research.To me, these bee babies bring hope and are a cause for celebration. As a wildlife gardener, I try to encourage other gardeners to think about pollinators too. Lydia’s research seems a sign that pollinator gardens truly can support insect species in decline. With spring sunshine comes optimism—and more bees.
Bottom line: I think we can all be nature champions. It doesn’t take a lot of effort to make a difference. It has been less than a decade since my husband and I removed the turfgrass on my front lawn and turned it into a pollinator garden. Before the garden was even fully in bloom, native bees and other pollinators started to arrive.
If you are wondering how to help our native bees—so important in pollinating our fruit and supporting biodiversity—then here are some simple gardening tips:
- Start Small: It takes time to get to know your garden, and which plants will grow well there. Inevitably, there will be successes and failures, which is part of the fun of gardening. Do your research first, then plant the right plant in the right place to ensure success.
- See Like a Bee: Bees see differently than us, attracted to violets, blues and whites. They don’t see red. There are always lots of bees around my English lavender, white cosmos, and spring crocus.
- Go Native: While some non-native plants attract native bees, it is the native plants that are important because of the evolutionary relationship between these plants and insects. Some act as host plants. We all know the story of the monarch butterfly and how it cannot exist without milkweed.
- Plant in Sun or Partial Sun: Try to plant your pollinator garden where it will get at least four to six hours of sunlight a day, with protection from the wind.
- Leave Your Leaves: Don’t be too quick to stuff your fallen leaves into leaf bags, only to watch them get hauled away by city recycling trucks. Instead, rake them into your garden beds where they will provide shelter for overwintering insects, including mated bumblebee queens that burrow into soil in winter. Leaves are like a warming blanket for the insects and plants. As an added benefit, come spring, those leaves will start to break down into compost for the soil.
- Chop-and-Drop: Forget about fall clean-up and cutting back your perennial plants. Some insects use those hollow stems later in the season to lay eggs. Wait until later in spring to chop perennial stems, then drop them onto the soil. Not only will they provide mulch, but will prevent insect eggs from being bagged up and taken to waste depots. An added advantage is that some perennial seedheads, such as black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) and coneflowers (Echinacea) also provide food for overwintering birds.
- Leave Bare Ground: “For ground-nesting bees, you must have areas of bare ground where bees can dig out nesting tunnels. On the surface, they look like small ant hills,” writes Berit Erickson, a local gardener who writes extensively about her corner pollinator garden. She cautions that you don’t need vast expanses of bare ground but do need to avoid using too much mulch or fabric cloth.
- Plant Tight and Plant More: When a plant works, add more. It’s less energy and easier for bees when nectar and pollen sources are nearby. It’s like buying all your food at the same supermarket, with less driving (or biking, or walking!) around.
- Teach Your Children Well: Encourage your kids to spend more time outside. Move slowly about the garden, teaching them to observe and identify different native bee species. Can you find a sweat bee? Bumblebee? Miner bee? Mason bee? It’s fun to learn about bees and their plant partners.
- Celebrate Success: One of my favorite books these days is A Garden for the Rusty-Patched Bumblebee, Creating Habitat for Native Pollinators by Lorraine Johnson and Sheila Colla. Residents of southern Ontario, their book is a celebration of gardens that buzz. On days when the world seems dark, remember you are making a difference when you grow a few plants for pollinators, and other wildlife in your garden.
- Join your local horticultural society or garden club: There are people with expertise on and enthusiasm for pollinator gardening all over the city. Also consider signing up for the various newsletters produced by community members, such as Trowel Talk, a free online publication by Master Gardeners of Ottawa-Carleton (MGOC)—or even use the MGOC Helpline, which offers free help for local gardeners.
Happy gardening! And don't forget to share photos of the fruits of your labours, whether with friends or on social media.
Image 1: Tri-coloured bumblebee on Queen-of-the-Prairie (Filipendula rubra); photo by Julianne Labreche.
Image 2: Honeybee on blanket flower (Gaillardia); photo by Julianne Labreche.
Image 3: Honeybee on butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa); photo by Julianne Labreche
Julianne Labreche is a member of the Master Gardeners of Ottawa-Carleton and President of the Ottawa Horticultural Society, as well as a recipient of Ecology Ottawa's first-ever Eco Awards in the category "Nature Champion."