When you think of bees, you might picture a cloud of honeybees (Apis mellifera), beehives and a beekeeper in full protective gear, a mosquito hat and a smoker in hand.
With No Mow May, you’ve probably already heard a lot about bees during the month of May. So why do I keep harping on about them? You see, when I write about bees, I’m not referring to the semi-domesticated honey bees native to Europe that are used to pollinate our food crops, but rather to all bees, especially the native ones. There are over 350 species in Quebec, 800 in Canada and 20,000 worldwide. Yet all too often, they live in the shadow of honey!
While domestic bees are more conspicuous and swarm, native bees, with the exception of bumblebees, are smaller and often solitary. But they are no less important. Perhaps even more so! Honey bees are more interested in the nectar with which they make their honey. Native bees, on the other hand, harvest pollen. They are therefore more efficient pollinators, particularly of native plants, while their European cousins are better suited to cultivated or non-native plants.
The War of the Bees
We already know that the loss of natural habitats, disease, pesticide use and climate change are causing native bee populations to decline, but the presence of honeybees could also harm them in certain contexts.
The reason is quite simple: honeybees are formidable competitors in situations where pollen resources are limited. They are generalists, feeding on a wide variety of flowers, depleting the resources needed by native bees. Some of the latter have very specific needs, and sometimes feed on a single species of native plant. Imagine you’re gluten intolerant and a colleague at work eats the gluten-free sandwich you left in the office fridge. You’d have nothing to eat, even if the fridge was full of sandwiches! What’s more, honey bees can travel greater distances to feed than their cousins, who are limited in the territory they can forage.
And since honey bees have a preference for non-native plants, these are more successful and therefore spread better, also reducing the quantity of native plants.
Bees in the City
Most studies on the subject have been carried out in wild or agricultural environments. What about in an urban environment? Perhaps you’re interested in setting up a hive, or you’re already an amateur beekeeper?
According to a study conducted by the team of Valérie Fournier, Professor of Agricultural Entomology at Laval University’s Faculty of Agricultural and Food Sciences: “Our study shows that cities can be home to large populations of native bees when floral resources are sufficient and honeybee density remains moderate. However, it is important to ensure that hive density remains below the threshold at which competition is likely to occur. In Paris, this threshold has now been exceeded. It could also be the case on the island of Montreal because hive density there is now almost five times higher than in 2013.”
I don’t want to discourage you from having hives to produce your own honey, but if you’re doing it to save honey bees, know that they don’t need your help. In fact, there are an estimated 1 billion honeybees in Canada and the United States.
The Bee Economy
The impact of honeybees on the North American economy is enormous. In the United States, their contribution to the agricultural industry is estimated at $20 billion a year, in the form of more abundant, better-quality harvests. Add to that $300 million worth of honey, not to mention all the by-products such as cosmetics.
Yet native bees also have a role to play in agriculture. In some cases, they are more resistant to cold conditions than their European counterparts, and can therefore pollinate certain early-blooming plants, such as wild blueberries, more efficiently. They can also carry more pollen and deposit more in the flowers they visit. Research is currently underway to determine the best way of integrating native pollinators into agriculture, including the use of foraging plots and flower strips.
Save the Bees
The best way to help native bees is to incorporate into our gardens a diversity of native plants that bloom from spring to autumn. We can also leave plants in place in autumn rather than cleaning them up, as the leaves and stems provide shelter for native bees over winter, as well as saving us time! We can even leave dead branches or tree trunks on our property, if we have the space and it remains safe. This can also provide a habitat for these insects. Sounds like a laidback gardener’s plan, doesn’t it?
I can already see you wondering which native plants to buy to create a small ecosystem for bees. There’s no simple answer! First of all, our readers are mostly in Quebec, but also in the rest of Canada, the United States and Europe. I’m afraid that few plants are indigenous to all these regions. Even in Quebec, you won’t find the same vegetation in Gatineau as in Sept-Îles!
In Europe, the situation is a little different, since honey bees are indigenous to the region, but also threatened by disease and pesticides.
So grab your shovels, gardeners! The bees need you! And we need them.