A Place for bees in the city
Why would anyone invite bees into her garden? Birds—oh, yes.
Butterflies—the more the better. But bees? These fuzzy garden visitors don’t have a great
reputation. But bees don’t wait in hiding for the moment to sting us. They are happy
enough to bumble from flower to flower undisturbed, all the while providing a valuable
service—pollination. The majority of flowering plants and a third of our food depend on
pollinators, mostly bees. But with urban sprawl and the common use of pesticides, natural
and safe habitat can be hard to come by, and pollinator numbers are declining the world
over. Thankfully, part of the solution is right in our backyard. The right plants and an
undisturbed patch of garden is all you need to create a pollinators’ paradise.
The Humble Bee
First things first: bees have gotten a bad rap. In fact, even the good things
we hear about bees aren’t always accurate. For instance, did you know that most bees
don’t produce honey, and those that do, produce only enough to feed the hive? Well, it’s
time to dispel some myths. Here’s an introduction to get you started.
Bees’ nesting habits vary from bee to bee. Because of our familiarity with the
European honeybee, it’s easy to assume that most bees live in colonies. However, most
are solitary and build their own nests for laying eggs. This is good news for us because,
without an instinctive need to protect the hive, native bees are happiest when left alone
and will sting only when trapped, squished or stepped on.
The majority of native bees build their nests in the ground. The others use holes in
dead trees, hollowed-out stems and even old walls. Bumblebees, the only other social
bee, make their colonies underground, usually in abandoned mouse burrows. They have
also been known to use undisturbed compost piles!
Native bees are as varied as the plants they feed on. Mason bees, for example, are
slightly smaller than honeybees and often have metallic-blue bodies. Look for them in
orchards where they are increasingly being used for pollinating. The tiny masked bee, a
mere 4 to 9 mm in length, has distinctive yellow or white markings on its face and a
black body. The large long-horned bee has a velvety fur, and the males sport very long
Did You Know?
Contrary to popular belief, honeybees are not native to North America, but were
introduced by Europeans some 400 years ago. The ones we see in the wild have escaped
domestic bee farms to build new colonies.
Bees vs. Wasps 101
One of the reasons bees have a bad reputation is because they’re often
associated with their cousin, the wasp. They can be difficult to distinguish, and but
knowing a few key features will help you tell them apart.
Vegetarian vs. Carnivorous
Bees feed on a cocktail of pollen and nectar, while wasps feed largely on small insects
and supplement their diet with nectar (or a sweet drink left out on the patio). When a
wasp is spotted on a flower, it is usually searching for its next meal.
Fuzzy vs. Sleek
Bees’ hair-covered bodies help them collect pollen to bring back to their nests. This
feature is what causes pollination, as well. Wasps’ bodies are usually more elongated,
sleek and hairless. However, a few bees collect pollen internally, and are virtually
hairless. The cuckoo bee, for example, lays her eggs in the nests of other bees, and
doesn’t collect pollen at all.
Docile vs. Aggressive
Due to their predatory nature, wasps are much more aggressive than bees and can be
easily provoked. Both bees and wasps can sting multiple times in a row, but bees will
sting only when truly threatened. It can be easy to enjoy these little fuzzballs without ever
Did You Know?
Only female bees have stingers (which are also used to lay eggs), and only honey bees
die when they sting. Honeybees release part of their abdomen with their stinger, which
keeps pumping venom after detaching, and die shortly thereafter.
Habitat loss is the number one cause of declining native bee populations.
Bees have evolved with the land they live on, and once it has been turned into farmland,
pasture, or urban space, bees can struggle to find a home. Providing a habitat in the city is
the first step to welcoming bees in your garden.
The vast majority of bees build their nests in the ground and look for an undisturbed
patch of soil to make their home. The female bee will excavate a channel and line it with
leaves, petals, mud or her own secretions. She will then collect pollen and nectar and
pack in into a ball at the bottom of the cavity and lay an egg on it. Once she seals this egg
cell, she’ll continue building the next chamber and the next, until she has reached the top
of the channel. Having built several nests this way, the female bee will die, and the eggs
will be left to hatch on their own.
An undisturbed piece of garden is essential for a bee to feel safe in the garden. Bees
won’t burrow through groundcover, so if you prefer to mulch your garden, leave a bare
spot. The soil should be well-drained, even sandy, and in a sunny spot. If you have
humus-rich soil, fill an old oak barrel with sand and soil and get ready to watch bees set
For bees that nest in hollows, providing a home can be as easy as drilling holes into a
snag or thick log. If it comes with beetle tunnels, all the better. Drill holes 3 mm–10 mm
in diameter, about 10 cm deep, and at a right angle to protect the nest from rain. Make
sure the entrance of each hole is smooth and free of splinters.
Rigid stems from raspberry bushes, sunflowers, and even reeds can also serve as bee
bungalows. Bundle the stems together and hang them horizontally in a sheltered spot,
away from rain and direct sun.
To help bees pass the winter, leave parts of your garden unkempt during fall clean up.
Favorite overwintering sites include wild patches of grasses, weeds, wildflowers, logs,
brush, leaf litter, and bush stems.
Did You Know?
Roughly 20,000 species of bees in the world, and 800 call Canada home.
Mason Bee House 101
While there are ready-made mason bee houses on the market, making one
of your own is very easy. All you need is some untreated scrap lumber (an old fence post
or a 4x4 are good choices), a router bit drill and a 5/16 router bit.
1. First, cut our scrap lumber into a 15 cm length.
2. Being carful not to drill all the way through the blocks, begin drilling holes distanced 2
cm apart until the block is covered with holes.
3. Cap the block with a shingle to protect the holes from rain, and hang your mason bee
house at least one metre above the ground and facing east (bees are cold-blooded and
depend on the sun to get going in the morning). During dry times, create a patch of moist
soil near the nest for mason bees to use for sealing their egg chambers.
Bees start emerging from hibernation in early spring and reduce their
activity by mid September. Because of their close relationship with native plants, each
bee species emerges in time with their favourite flower. Feeding habits also vary from
bee to bee; some are specialists, choosing only one type of plant to feed on, while others
are generalists. When designing your garden to attract the greatest variety of bees, focus
on native plants with various blooming periods. In no time you’ll enjoy watching these
furry and gentle foragers circling the flowers in your garden.
Getting it Right
Choose native plants full of nectar and pollen. Native plants and bees have evolved
together and are well suited to meet each other’s needs. Avoid exotic flowers that have
been bred for showiness; they often have diminished nectar and pollen production in
exchange for layers of petals. Generally, plants of the Asteracea and Lamiaceae family
are full of both nectar and pollen. Ask your local nursery to point you in the right
Plant large patches of each flower. Bees are attracted by colour and scent, and a large
patch of a single flower is especially welcoming. The proximity of multiple flowers also
means that bees can forage in one area for a longer time (they will have to make dozens
of trips each day). A patch that is at least one metre squared is best.
Choose an array of plants that will bloom throughout the season. A garden should
contain at least ten varieties to attract bees all season long. A range of flower shapes and sizes will accommodate the different tongue lengths of bees, and different blooming
times will ensure there is always something to eat.
Nectar & Pollen Plants for Every Season
Spring: Shrubs and trees will provide nectar in early in the season when food is scarce.
Crabapple, cherry, lilac, dogwood, willow, and wild geranium are good choices.
Summer: Meadowsweet, coneflower, meadow blazing star, cosmos, verbena, milkweed,
salvia, basil, and tomatoes.
Late Summer; Fall: joe pye-weed, goldenrod, black-eyed susan, great blue lobelia,
native sunflowers, asters, squash and pumpkin.
Once your garden is ready to house and feed bees, keep it pesticide-free. Even small
amounts of pesticide will kill small critters like bees. If you have to use pesticide, make
sure it’s organic, apply sparingly and in the evening when bees have finished their
Did You Know?
Bees are red-colourblind, so choose flowers that are blue, yellow and purple.