The May long weekend is coming up, the unofficial start of the gardening season in Canada!
Even if the weather is still feeling a bit cold or damp this is the time when we’re frost-free coast-to-coast and you could traditionally plant warmer weather veggies like tomatoes, cucumbers and squash without fear of them being harmed by cold or rain. These days climate change is making the weather a bit, ummm, unpredictable and if you haven’t noticed it already as soon as you start gardening you will. (Remember last year’s June-uary in Vancouver? Let’s hope that doesn’t happen again.)
Now that the calendar says you can garden with reckless abandon I’ve got some bee friendly projects to get you outside. Next week I’ll spend some time on veggie garden ideas, it’s time! Even the little helpers are getting into the swing of things.
The buzz about bees
There has been a lot of talk about bees around our house lately. For one, my daughter has discovered the joys of honey sweetened tea. And, as we smelled the first lavender blooms on our bushes outside, she agreed we would pick one each and leave the rest for food for the bees. She’s getting into this food for the birds and bees thing.
Bees have quickly become the darling of the insect world as alarm bells have been rung over scary sounding things like Colony Collapse Disorder and the pest that strikes fear into the hearts of beekeepers everywhere, varroa mite. Honeybees are critical to the food we eat every day. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, honeybees pollinate 80 percent of our flowering crops which constitute 1/3 of everything we eat, including almonds, apples, blueberries, soybeans and alfalfa (a staple for animal feed). Honeybees are not the only pollinators, native bees (like bumblebees and mason bees) and predatory wasps work to pollinate important plants and food crops too. All of our pollinators are facing tough times with the effect of pesticides, habitat loss and the introduction of exotic pests.
Research is telling us that a relatively new class of pesticides (neonicotinoids) are the worst offenders when it comes to harming bees. These pesticides were partially banned in the EU last month based on the convincing research that neonicotinoids are harming pollinators of all types. Many people are working to get a similar ban in place in the US and Canada.
The state of the bees–which isn’t good–is concerning because they are mini-canaries in the mine shaft. If bees are in trouble we’re not far behind, a world without pollinators will be a hungry one.
Ready for some good news?
Home gardens and city parks are becoming safe havens for bees. Cosmetic pesticide bans have spread across municipalities making cities pesticide free zones. Pesticide-exuding GMO crops are also not found in cities. Add to that the diversity of urban plantings from landscape plants to veggie gardens and the ability to continually water even when it gets hot and dry and the city is suddenly much more hospitable for hungry bees than mono-cultured agricultural areas where crops flower at a single time. (Case in point, this bee-friendly roundabout.) Urban beekeeping is taking off globally, making cities the places where bee population declines are reversing.
You don’t need to set up a hive in your yard to help make your neighbourhood more bee-friendly (although that is an amazing thing to do). You can make a bee watering station and mini-bee garden in your yard, patio, boulevard or park.
Bee project #1 — bee watering hole
Bees and other beneficial insects—ladybugs, butterflies, and predatory wasps—all need fresh water to drink but they need a landing pad to drink from. As the weather heats up in summer it can be challenging for our tiny friends to find a place for a good drink, but it’s easy to make the perfect bee watering hole.
- Line a shallow bowl or plate with rocks.
- Add water, but leave the rocks as dry islands to serve as landing pads.
- Place the bath at the ground level in your garden. (Put it near plants that get aphids and the beneficial insects that come to drink will eat ’em up.)
- Refresh the water daily, adding just enough to evaporate by day’s end.
Bee project #2 — busy bee gardens
Bees feed on nectar and pollen from flowers and it is their activity moving from one flower to the next that makes them effective pollinators. Native bees prefer a diet of native plants. Honeybees are more opportunistic and will feed on exotic booms as well. This makes planting with bees in mind pretty easy, if it flowers chances are it can become bee food. One thing to avoid are flower varieties that are “double flowered”, the extra petals make it hard for bees to get the nectar.
Herby honeybee favourites
Try adding these to a herb garden: chives, thyme, lavender, achillea, bee balm, anise‐hyssop, fennel or dill. Predatory wasps particularly like the tall stalks of fennel and dill, despite their unfriendly name these are good guys to have in your garden.
And I have to mention the hardy shrub California Lilac, in early summer it is covered in tiny blue flowers that the bees go crazy over.
For our native bumblebees–who don’t sting by the way– they need native plants to thrive, making life in the city harder for them than their European honeybee cousins. Imagine looking over a sea of blooms with an empty bumble bee stomach and not being able to enjoy any of them. Adding native plants to your garden or local landscapes is an important way to help native bees and insects thrive. There is a comprehensive list of bumble bee friendly native plants for west coast gardens. These are a few that I’ve been adding to our place to show some native hospitality: heather, common bearberry (kinnikinnick), huckleberries and (coming soon) red flowering currant.
Enjoy communing with your fuzzy little bee friends and do take the time to see if that bee buzzing on the blooms is a honeybee or a bumblebee. There is a wide diversity of bumblebees that come in colours and stripes that depart from the yellow and black stereotype.
If you’re in Vancouver, you can also get a guided bee field tour (and much more) June 8th at the Strathcona Garden Fair. And no matter where you are keep an eye out for urban honey bee hives. Beekeepers are notoriously happy to talk about their tiny friends.