Get Busy for the Bees

Our precious pollinators are dying off. Here’s how you can help.

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Bees are not just beautiful to watch as they buzz from flower to flower, they’re also essential to life as the pollinators of over 70 percent of fruit and vegetable crops. But a global spate of die-offs, attributed to everything from pesticides to mites to cable towers, has world bee populations at an all-time low – one-quarter are already gone in the United States.

If we lose the bees, we risk losing the plants they pollinate and the creatures that eat those plants, which then means less food for us. The world’s population is set to rise from 7.3 billion to 9 billion by 2050, and we’re already struggling to feed the planet. We need bees so we can keep feeding the planet.

The problem may seem overwhelming, but there are ways that each of us can help, says Melanie Coates, founder of urban beekeeping project Beegrrl and co-founder of the rooftop beekeeping initiative at Toronto’s Fairmont Royal York hotel.

Shop for honey

One easy way to help is to keep bees working by buying honey. “You’ll be supporting local beekeepers who are working hard to keep bee populations up,” says Coates. Look for “100% pure” and “Canada No. 1” on the label at farmers’ markets, fine food stores and farm-gate sales. Get your friends stoked about honey too: “I like hosting tasting parties and matching different honey flavour profiles with local cheeses,” she says.

While most people cringe at the site of a beehive in their yard, if you truly do want to help then leave it where it is.

Also try other products from the hive, such as beeswax soaps and candles. “Most regular candles are petroleum-based,” says Coates, “but beeswax candles can purify the air in your home.” Try propolis, bee venom and other apitherapy products with antibacterial and healing properties.

Protect your backyard beehive

While most people cringe at the site of a beehive in their yard, if you truly want to help, then leave it where it is. Consider being even more proactive by limiting certain pesticides and protecting bee nesting areas by controlling their enemy, the varroa mite.

Pollination Canada, Bee City Canada, Bees Matter and Health Canada run info-rich websites with several bee-friendly tips. As well, sign online petitions or write letters to call for better legislation. Friends of the Earth Canada and the David Suzuki Foundation have active bee campaigns.

Put bees to work

You might also want to consider planting a pollinator garden, which includes numerous flowers of different shapes and sizes to feed different types of pollinators. It may not beautify your yard, but “there’s a lot to be said for the not-so-well-manicured garden,” says Coates.

Cup-shaped honeysuckle and bee balm flowers have broad appeal for bees, and native bees with short tongues like feeding on smaller flowers such as milkweed and mint. If space is tight, Coates suggests a container garden with catnip, mint and lavender.

Spray your garden’s rocks and grass with water. “Bees get thirsty,” says Coates. And you can create backyard homes for wood- and cavity-nesting bees using wood blocks with holes bored in the sides and bundles of bamboo or hollow-stemmed sticks.

Become a beekeeper

If you want to take your bee-related generosity to another level, then consider becoming a hobbyist beekeeper. But before you go it alone, check your local bylaws, as urban beekeeping is not allowed everywhere. You’ll also need to take a beekeeping course to understand how to properly look after the little creatures.

Then you’ll need time. Set aside at least a few hours every week – on average 80 hours each summer – to tend to the hives, doing tasks such as checking in on the queen, supervising the health of the hive and eventually harvesting honey, says Coates. If all goes well, you can expect to harvest from 50 to 100 kilograms of honey – a sweet reward for your service to the bees.

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