You may find them to be a pain during picnics, but they pollinate 70 of the top 100 human food crops and 80 percent of flowering plants, and you can thank them for about one-third of your diet. Honeybees are amazing little creatures, and among the most important on earth. They’re also dying off at an alarming rate, due in large part to the ongoing use of pesticides around the world.
Fortunately, because of increased awareness and the human desire to make a difference, there are lots of options available to help them flourish and fly – including in your own backyard. “Pesticides are definitely the number one issue in winter die-offs,” says Roy Alleman of Cool Creek Apiaries and the Golden Horseshoe Beekeepers Association. “Commercial beekeeping has been very difficult the last seven years, with around 35 percent of our bees dying over winter. We’re also seeing losses during the spring and summer months, which isn’t normal.”
Most honey bees in Ontario are managed by beekeepers that are actively working to keep colonies alive. Unfortunately, pollinators such as bumblebees, solitary bee species and butterflies don’t have this advantage, and some studies also show sharp declines in these populations over the last decade. It’s not all bad news though: with all the media attention focused on the plight of the pollinators, there’s a noticeable increased interest in hobby beekeepers and also a thirst for general knowledge in how to keep the bees buzzing with a variety of flowers and foliage. “Beekeeping seems to be transforming into a more mainstream hobby, as seen by beekeeping equipment being sold by large chain retailers,” says Alleman. “Hobbyists are popping up all over, kids are more aware, and there’s an increase in rooftop keepers in urban areas, which is all amazing.”
And there are some pretty cool options for those who want to take some bees under their wings, so to speak. Hamilton’s Humble Bee offers locally raised Ontario honeybees to rent, sponsor or buy, with four-frame nucleus colonies available, complete with delivery and installation in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton areas. “The Host a Hive program is a great way to get your feet wet in beekeeping,” says Dan Douma, an apiarist with Humble Bee. “We also offer private and group classes, and lessons for different skill levels. Beekeeping is definitely becoming more popular as awareness spreads.”
Humble Bee also offers raw honey for sale, and a guided Beehive Tour that includes honey tasting and meeting the Queen Bee. Humble Bee has also partnered with the Royal Botanical Gardens this year and will set up hives to function throughout the summer months.
Education is key when it comes to the future of these incredible insects, and if you’re really serious about keeping them thriving, there are now classes available at both the University of Guelph and Niagara College. But if hosting a hive in your backyard or on your roof isn’t to your taste, there are plenty of other ways to save the bees and keep them busy all year long. “Be a messy gardener,” says Douma. “Leave stalks up over the winter, and put mulch down, as bees often use these places to hibernate. Bumblebees go underground to sleep, and providing a warm place is so helpful. Don’t dig and till until as late as possible, and don’t spray!”
Douma also suggests planting early blooming bulbs such as heather, crocus and honeysuckle to feed the bees as early as possible. And, there are also plenty of helpful plants and flowers that pollinators absolutely love to get their feet on, such as goldenrod, aster, Dutch clover, snowdrops, globe thistles, poppies – and dandelions, which is a great reason not to yank them out of your yard. “It’s difficult for a lot of people, but keeping your lawns as natural as possible is always the best solution,” says Alleman. “A natural lawn may look like it has weeds, but the bees love it.” So put the spray and the shovels away. That way, we can all help the bees go about their buzz-ness.