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

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Maura Hamil

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I know spring is really coming when I see queen bumblebees buzzing in my yard, moving slowly and low, looking for a suitable site to build a nest for this year’s bumblebee brood. To me, their appearance heralds the renewal of life in the animal, plant and insect kingdoms.

Alberta is home to more than 300 native bee species, including 27 bumblebee species. Native bees are bees that have evolved in a particular region and have adapted to that region’s climate and forage crops. They can be sociable, 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 population is managed by humans. Our native bees don’t have the same support system, so they need some help from us.

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Worldwide, 30 percent of native bees are in danger of extinction, caused by many factors. Climate change, with higher temperatures and more severe droughts, is disrupting bee emergence times and reducing their available nectar sources. Habitat loss and fragmentation reduce nesting sites and access to food. Excessive and inappropriate use of pesticides kills bees and insects and not only harms birds and humans.

Why should we worry if bees go extinct? That’s because we all need food to survive. More than three quarters of the wild-flowering plants and a third of the food we eat depend on insect pollination.

Our native bees also need food to survive. Nectar provides a source of energy, while pollen provides a combination of proteins, amino acids and minerals. They need places to nest, which depends on the bee species, but it helps to leave open ground for nests or existing holes in the soil (bumblebees especially love old mouse nests).

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A hunting bumblebee on liatris spicata.  Photo by Maura Hamill
A hunting 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 one pot of lavender will help. I was amazed at how just a few plants made a difference to the number of bees visiting my garden. Plant a buffet for the entire season. Bees need flowers from early spring to fall, not just summer.

Have your dandelions bloom in the spring. They will feed the first hungry bees to emerge from hibernation. (Once other plants start blooming, you can deal with the dandelions!)

Resist perfection. Let it get a little wild and have your leaf mulch in June. Tidying up your yard too early will kill many insects that are still hibernating, such as ladybugs and other beneficial insects.

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

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

Leave bare loose soil near your pollinator garden. This helps bees that nest on the ground.

What plants do native bees like?

Bumblebees are attracted to yellow, purple, blue and white flowers. Simple flowers with one petal, flat and open, such as the flowers of the cosmos, daisies and sunflowers. Bees cannot access the nectar, if it is produced, in complex double flowers.

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

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With just a few adjustments, your garden will be buzzing with bees from early spring to fall. I know that once you’ve caught the bee bug, you’ll be planting more bee-friendly plants and looking for new sources 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!

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

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