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Aug 30, 2023

5 min. read

WHEN PEOPLE THINK OF BEES, most think of the fuzzy flower-loving bumblebee or the western honeybee, the iconic black and yellow insect that makes honey. These are just two of more than 800 bee species—domesticated and wild—that are vital to Canada’s ecosystems and that commercial farmers rely on to pollinate their crops.

But pollinators of all kinds are struggling. Climate change and parasitic mites have contributed to the deaths of countless domesticated bees in recent years, while pesticides and habitat loss threaten thousands of wild pollinator species—bees, as well as beetles and butterflies.

Here’s the good news. Individuals and groups are busy sustaining these ecological superheroes and spreading public awareness of the many ways we rely on them.

Each spring, in Alberta and Manitoba, semi-trucks haul some 60,000 bee colonies (that’s up to 3.6 billion bees) across the Prairies to pollinate millions of acres of yellow canola flowers. The colonies are rented out to farmers by commercial beekeepers who then sell the honey that is produced as a by-product.

“Bees perform an essential function in the food system,” says Rod Scarlett, executive director of the non-profit Canadian Honey Council. These minuscule workers are an integral part of modern industrial agriculture, he notes. When their summer’s work is done, the bees are trucked home and beekeepers either wrap up the hives or move them into barns, where the insects can safely spend the winter.

But domesticated honeybees are not the only pollinators on Canadian farms. We rely on others for many of the foods we consume. For instance, flies are important pollinators of onions, strawberries and carrots. “Some plants have a desire for different types of pollinators, so it’s important that we also look to the ones in nature to help pollinate plants and flowers,” Scarlett adds. He encourages Canadians to support bees by growing native pollinator-friendly plants, such as lavender and milkweed, in their backyards. Buying locally made honey also boosts our agriculture industry and supports our local beekeepers.

At Living Sky Honey, in Kronau, Sask., a hamlet near Regina, Louise Yates provides her bees with a diverse diet— wildflowers, spring-flowering fruit trees and shrubs like haskap, plums, currants, cherries and apples, all of which enhance the honey’s flavour profile.

“Honey is a lot like wine,” notes Yates. “It has a terroir—or sense of place—and my honey will taste similar, yet different, from honey that is made even 20 kilometres away.” Like most of her fellow apiarists (a.k.a. beekeepers), Yates delivers her honey to nearby communities and takes every opportunity to share her passion with her customers. “If you’re interested, every beekeeper will talk your ear off about bees and honey.”

Jason Gibbs is also eager to share his knowledge, particularly when it comes to the biodiversity of the world’s 20,000- plus bee species. “I’m always amazed by how many different kinds of bees there are, how different they appear and how different their lives are,” says Gibbs, an associate professor in the University of Manitoba’s department of entomology. While domesticated and wild bees in Canada face various threats, it’s the wild bees that need our help the most, he points out. “They don’t have the benefit of a dedicated commercial industry to help maintain their populations, so they’re on their own.”

There are misconceptions about how to sustain bee populations, and among the most dangerous is when amateurs think they can help by starting beehives at home. Without knowledgeable, committed beekeepers, these small-scale hobby colonies can turn into reservoirs for diseases and pests, warns Gibbs. The University of Manitoba’s nine-week program—Beekeeping for the Hobbyist—is an excellent resource for would-be apiarists because it equips them with the tools to care for bees safely and responsibly.

Meanwhile, how can the rest of us help protect our pollinators? Sometimes, less is more. Skip the pesticides and don’t aim for that perfectly green lawn—“a diversity wasteland,” says Gibbs. Instead, grow native pollinator-friendly flowers, which are easier to maintain anyway. And cross out raking on your fall task list. Dead leaves provide winter habitats for bees and butterflies. With a little help, our essential pollinators will continue to thrive in the years to come.

Know your bees

Here are some of the most common bee species in Canada.

European honeybee (Apis mellifera)

Also known as the western honeybee, this prolific pollinator is one of a handful of bee species that produce honey.

Carpenter bee (Xylocopa virginica)

This large, slow-moving species, which looks similar to the bumblebee, builds its nest by burrowing into dry wood.

Bumblebee (Bombus)

A large, fuzzy species, the bumblebee may look cuddly, but don’t get too close—unlike the western honeybee, it can sting multiple times if threatened.

Blue orchard mason bee (Osmia lignaria)

This dark metallic blue solitary species is prized in Western Canada for its efficiency at pollinating fruit trees.

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