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Oct 17, 2023

9 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 ecosystems in Canada 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.

Beekeeper inspecting a honeycomb frame amidst flying bees.

Teaching the next generation of beekeepers

Niagara College, nestled amid the vineyards and farms of Niagara-on-the-Lake, is training beekeepers to meet the needs of a changing world. “We are engaged with all aspects of protecting and contributing to healthy bee populations,” says Mylee Nordin, program coordinator for the college’s commercial beekeeping program. “We try to not only equip beekeepers with current best practices, but also provide the tools to adapt to changes they might encounter in the future.” This includes pest-management strategies that don’t harm pollinators, whether wild or domesticated.

Nordin encourages Canadians to support local beekeepers by exploring the diversity of locally made honey. “While we often tend to think of honey as one specific colour and taste, it actually captures a very unique time and place based on where and when the nectar was collected. The nuance of taste and range of flavour profiles will blow people away.”

At Fairmont Royal York, beekeeper Melanie Coates guides guests in experiencing hyperlocal honey via the hotel’s rooftop beekeeping program, which she helped launch in 2008. More Fairmont properties in Canada and the U.S. have since followed suit.

The honey at the Royal York, which comes from six hives producing hundreds of pounds of liquid gold each season, is served on the hotel’s charcuterie boards, banquet buffets and even in the locally brewed Apiary Ale. “The early-harvest honey is a little bit lighter and more floral,” notes Coates, who likens honey’s unique flavour profile to a wine’s terroir, or sense of place. “There’s a hint of mint in the Fairmont Royal York honey because there’s mint growing on the roof, and there’s a caramel essence that comes out in the fall.”

Uncapping a honeycomb frame with a tool to extract honey.

The importance of bees

In addition to their gastronomic contribution, Fairmont Royal York’s honeybees serve as ambassadors in the world of pollinators, Coates says. They also help people understand why it’s important to protect them, especially with pollinator habitats disappearing across Southern Ontario to make way for highways and suburban sprawl. “It really sparks conversation and engagement— and is just one more touch point that guests can have.”

Entomologist Chris Cutler—a professor at Dalhousie University’s department of plant, food and environmental sciences—educates students about the importance of bees. He names apples, pumpkins and cucumbers as just a few of the many crops that depend on them. Atlantic Canadians are fortunate, he notes, to be living in a region where much of the land is relatively untouched and has a rich diversity of flowering plants, which is a boon for bees, birds, butterflies and other pollinator species.

“There are around 20,000 species of bees globally and we have a few hundred of them here in Atlantic Canada. Most of them do not look like the stereotypical bee and most are solitary ground nesters that do not live in big colonies or produce honey.”

How to protect pollinators

Nonetheless, Cutler emphasizes that these bee species provide vital ecosystem services, even though most people are completely unaware of them.

You don’t need to be a beekeeper or entomologist to help protect pollinators. There are simple things we can do, says Niagara College’s Nordin. Leave dandelions growing in your yard. Plant a pollinator-friendly, pesticide-free garden. 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.

Illustrations of four types of bees; blue orchard mason bee, bumblebee, carpenter bee, and european honeybee, with labels.

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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