August 16th, 2016 | Georgina Preston, Sustainability Journalist & Content Producer for Sustainable Kingston

1280px-European_honey_bee_extracts_nectarMy bike ride to work is one of the things I most enjoy about living in Kingston for the Summer. As a student who had only seen the city in the colder seasons, the wonderful gardens that have come alive during this time of year are a delightful surprise. Despite the horrible cliche, there’s something that hits a sweet-spot of the soul when one “takes time to smell the roses” and enjoys a collection of pretty flowers.

Could you imagine a Kingston Summer without those pretty gardens? And not just the flower ones. From the smallest vegetable plot to the biggest cropland, the demise of a small insect threatens us all.

Perhaps small is the wrong choice of word, as their impact is anything but. Bees and other pollinators are responsible for the pollination of approximately 1/3 of our food and contribute hundreds of billions of dollars to agriculture systems yearly. In Ontario alone, the pollination done by honeybees and bumblebees contributes 13% to the value of our crops. And that number doesn’t include the help we get from the rest of the 400 species of bee in the province.

Plants and pollinators have a symbiotic relationship. Bees need flowers for nutrition, and 75-87% of flowering plants NEED the pollinators in order to help them complete the act of fertilization that allows them to reproduce. Therefore, a world without bees is not pretty. In some places, such as areas in China, the bees have already decreased enough to require people to hand pollinate their crops with tiny paint brushes. This is a tedious process which yields fractions of the crops that bees can produce.

Unfortunately for us, that method may become a reality if the sharp decline in North American bee populations continues. Since world war two, the planet’s bees have been dying at an alarming rate for a variety of reasons. Parasites, pesticides, monoculture farming practices and habitat fragmentation from human disturbance have not fared well with the bees. The honey bee in particular has seen hive numbers dwindle by 50% in the past few decades. Each winter season leads to dramatic losses which will prove unsustainable for future bee populations. The winter of 2013-2014 in Ontario was especially bad for beekeepers, who witnessed 58% of their honeybees die. And those lovely archetypes for honey are not the only ones in danger. The Rusty Patch Bumblebee and the Gypsy Cuckoo Bumblebee are examples of native species that have worrisome futures in Canada.

So what can we do?

Pollinator gardenMy favourite line of defence relates to that sweet-spot of the soul that I referenced in my introduction. Planting a pollinator garden will not only be an aesthetically pleasing addition to your property, but it will provide the bees with the nourishment they need to keep up their hard work. Bees prefer some flowering plants over others, so it helps to plant the kinds they like. It’s also important to plant a flowers that bloom at different times of the growing season, so food remains consistent. Early flowering plants that grow best in Kingston soil are wild blueberries, cranberries, foxgloves, heliotropes, heather, willows, coneflowers and primroses. Mid-summer plants include blackberries, chives, hyssops, sunflowers and yarrows. Lastly, the end of summer flowers are asters, beggar ticks, goldenrod, pumpkins and squash. Other plants that bees just can’t get enough of include lavender, thyme, cilantro, borage, sage, tomatoes, cucumbers, fennel and crocuses.

If you have the space to provide living accommodations for the bees, even better! Different species of bees live in diverse settings. From ground dwellers, wood nesters, or hives, there are things you can do to make an ideal living area. Wild for Bees, an initiative by Burt’s Bees, builds bee hotels and details how you can do it too. Find out more in this Wild for Bees publication!

These gardens and homes should be as natural as possible, with no need for harsh chemicals such as pesticides. One type of pesticide that is especially bad for the bees are called neonicotinoids. At large concentrations this pesticide type causes the bees to convulse, become paralyzed and die. At lower concentrations the bees can become disoriented, intoxicated and this can result in the affected bee not being able to find their way home. In 2013, 95% of canola and corn crops were sprayed with neonics in the North America. This could be closely correlated to the higher percentage (recall 58%) of honeybee die-outs during that following winter in Ontario.

Thankfully, the staggering loss of bee life led to provincial action. In July of 2015, Ontario became the first government in North America to restrict the use of neonicotinoid pesticides on corn and soybean seeds. This was a win for the bees, but we should still be mindful of where we go from here. For instance, when you choose to buy from local farmers who avoid pesticides, use plants like clover and alfalfa to naturally fertilize their soil and include a diverse range of crops, you support sustainable agriculture and the bees.

This mindfulness, paired with planting your very own pollinator garden will be important in the years to come. The bees need us now, but we need them so much more. With a healthy, well-nourished collection of pollinators, a healthy, well-nourished human society is sure to follow.

So get out there! There are flowers to plant and bees to bee-friend!



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