Don’t be afraid of the bees. Instead, invite the little critters into your yard, give them a home and offer them a cornucopia of blossoms to visit. If you do, chances are your garden will be healthier and more beautiful than ever.
“In 12 years of studying bees, I’ve only been stung seven times,” said Dr. Jessamyn Manson.
Doing a telephone interview from her office at the University of Virginia, Manson explained that in 2014 she began research to count and classify bees in Alberta. As a University of Alberta researcher, she partnered with Biodiversity Monitoring Institute of Alberta to survey bee populations in canola fields.
So far some 200 native bee species are confirmed in Alberta, Manson said. Of those, Alberta is home to 20 to 30 species of bumble bees. Many people think of honey bees or bumble bees, but there are many other important pollinators that fall within the family.
The study, funded by the Canola Council, only focused on native bees and did not include honey bees.
Although there are many reports that native species of bees are in decline in other parts of the world, Manson stressed that studies in Alberta are ongoing and the results will be tabulated for at least another year.
“We know from data from other parts of Canada that a decline in bee populations has been measured and we suspect it in Alberta but we have no data. We are collecting baseline data,” she said.
As for bumblebees, one species, the western bombus, is threatened in Canada.
“It is listed as ‘threatened’ in Canada but that is not necessarily true across Alberta. But we are seeing major shifts in bumblebee populations,” Manson said.
Whether it is proven that Alberta’s bees are in decline or not, they are on the move. Distinctive bumble bees, with a white stripe on their butt, were formerly only in the Calgary area. Now they are found in Edmonton too.
The changes to the bees’ range appear to have been caused by several factors, said Peter Heule, animal biologist and self-named “bug-guy” at the Royal Alberta Museum.
“It’s a cocktail of a lot of things. You can’t blame one thing. It’s loss of habitat, it’s climate change, it’s pesticides, it’s disease,” Heule said.
Information about how to attract different bee species, as well as ways to build a bee condo are on the Edmonton and Area Land Trust website (ealt.ca).
Members of the 2nd St. Albert Scouts used those instructions to build and distribute bee hotels to the St. Albert Botanic Park and to members of St. Albert’s City Council.
“We made three different sizes out of bamboo,” said Lucas Mallette, 12.
Mallette built 20 houses himself and set up several around his Sturgeon Area acreage. So far, the cold spring has limited bee residency.
“I check them every day, but no bees have moved in yet,” he said.
Bumblebees prefer to live in the ground but familiar leaf-cutter bees, which tend to make holes in rose leaves, will move into the little houses, Heule said.
“Leaf-cutter bees are an important solitary-bee pollinator. They don’t eat the flower and the holes are a minor esthetic issue. They are probably a benefit to your roses because they will pollinate them,” he said.
Paper wasps will not live in bamboo houses but if they become a problem the best plan may be to remove small nests as soon as you see them.
“Don’t use poison because if you spray a wasp nest the ants and bees may take it back to their hives,” said Manson.
Heule suggests wasps are most problematic in late August and early September.
“Yellow jackets get desperate at the end of the summer. They mostly eat caterpillars but when they run out of those late in the season, the wasps get aggressive. You have to be careful, of course, but I find if you give them a smack they find something else to eat. Don’t flail because that attracts them. If you kill one, it has a pheromone that attracts other wasps. Best to leave them alone,” Heule said.
To encourage pollinating species of bees, plant a succession of blooming plants that will provide nectar from spring until late in the fall.
Derrick Harrison, a lifetime member of the St. Albert Garden Club, said bees arrive at plants at different times.
“The first flowers being visited by bees are the fruit trees, as these have lots of small blossoms that are laden with pollen. These are supplemented by early flowering perennials, such as spring bulbs, creeping thyme, primula, sedum, aubrietia, clover and dandelions. I find the bees prefer the plants that have the most pollen or large blooms that minimize how far they have to fly for a full load of pollen. These include sunflowers, delphiniums, lupins, lavender, salvia and roses,” said Harrison.
Bumble bees like the following plants best:
• Those that require buzz-pollination including blueberries, members of the tomato family and peppers.
• Purple flowers with long nectar spurs such as larkspur, monkshood and columbine.
• Legumes: vetch, peas, clover and lupins.
• Deep tubular flowers such as bergamot and gentians.