Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

A ale rusty-patched bumblebee (Bombus affinis). The last recorded sighting of the bee in Canada was in 2009.Courtesy of Margarita Miklasevskaja at PCYU with funding from NSERC-CANPOLIN

Sheila Colla was an undergraduate at the University of Toronto when she first became interested in the rusty-patched bumblebee. It was about 2004, and she was working with a PhD student studying bee diseases when they noticed a worrying trend: The rusty-patched bumblebee was conspicuously absent. “If you had 100 bumblebees in Southern Ontario in the seventies, 15 of them would have been the rusty-patched,” she says. “We were collecting hundreds of bumblebees and not finding it.”

Now an associate professor in the Faculty of Environmental & Urban Change at York University, Colla has found the species only twice, both times at Ontario’s Pinery Provincial Park. On the first, in 2005, one specimen showed up in her collection jar. The second time, a summer day in 2009, she spotted one lone bee foraging on the side of the road. “That’s the last record known to Canada,” she says, adding that the species is enduring in parts of the United States, including Minnesota and Wisconsin. “Even then it’s not super common. It’s just populations that are hanging on.”

Colla focused her doctorate on the missing species, and has now co-written a book in its name with gardening writer and cultivation activist Lorraine Johnson. A Garden for the Rusty-Patched Bumblebee: Creating Habitat for Native Pollinators features a thorough guide to native plants that support bees and other pollinators in Ontario and the Great Lakes region, plus background and tips on what bees need.

While public messaging asking people to help “save the bees” has been common for years, honeybees have often been the star of the show. But it’s increasingly clear that we’re dependent on native, non-managed species to pollinate large-scale agricultural crops and backyard gardens, as well as countless plants that help make the world livable.

And as threats from climate change become more pronounced, there’s no time like the present to help protect Canadian bees by preserving and creating habitat. “We need to work to nurture those relationships,” Colla says. “Even if we don’t fully understand them.”

There are about 860 different native bees in Canada, and they’re quite distinct from the one pictured on your honey jar.

Our bumblebees, sweat bees, mason bees, leafcutter bees and other species don’t even make honey. They come in a range of shapes, sizes and colours, including iridescent green and blue. Most are solitary and don’t live in hives, and many don’t sting. And they evolved alongside native plant species, forming complex relationships with them that we’ve only begun to understand.

Meanwhile, honeybees aren’t from here at all. They were brought over from Europe to satisfy our cravings for sweets and have become a pollination tool for large-scale agriculture – a sort of insect livestock. And while colony collapse disorder and other issues facing honeybees have certainly harmed a lot of hives and associated livelihoods in the beekeeping industry, Colla notes, that doesn’t mean the species is endangered – far from it.

Many wild bee species, though, are having a rough go of it, from factors including climate change and introduced diseases from honeybees, bumblebees and leafcutter bees used in agriculture. The working theory is that the rusty-patched bumblebee disappeared owing to such a disease, says Colla, perhaps in the 1990s.

About a quarter of the 50-odd North American bumblebee species are at risk of extinction, she adds, and while the data are not as good for other native bees, researchers are concerned that a similar percentage is threatened. “That ends up being quite a lot of species,” she says. “And there’s not a ton of redundancy in our ecosystems.”

One person who’s helped make these ecosystems more resilient is Nancy Holmes, a professor of creative writing at the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus. Holmes and Cameron Cartiere of Emily Carr University of Art + Design created a public art initiative called Border Free Bees to educate people and show them how to take action, while creating beautiful landscapes.

For example, the duo launched a Bee Ambassador Program in Kelowna in 2018, which encouraged residents to plant one square metre of their yard or other accessible land with bee-friendly flowers that bloom from spring through fall. More than 350 participants received a guide to gardening for bees, including information on which plants are best for pollinators and the Okanagan climate, and signs showing they were part of the program.

“I still see the signs everywhere,” Holmes says. “People are enthusiastic.” One reason? Gardening for the bees is fun, she says. “You can sit there on a summer day with a glass of lemonade and watch the flowers, and you will see bee after bee bouncing around.”

Marian Whitcomb, a gardener and native plant advocate in Baddeck, N.S., has been restoring her one-acre property with local plant species, among them wild strawberries, native violets and serviceberries. She recalls a Cape Breton childhood of lying on the grass and listening to the bees buzzing, of roadsides thick with native asters and goldenrods when it was time to go back to school. “I love saying, ‘that’s Cape Breton,’” she says of the natural spaces she has restored. “Because that’s what I grew up with.”

At its simplest, Colla and Johnson say pollinator-friendly gardening comes down to providing food, shelter and safety. Include a variety of plants, ideally native to your region, that flower throughout the seasons. In Ontario, that might mean foamflower and serviceberry for spring, milkweed and coreopsis for summer, and asters and goldenrod for fall. Leave patches of bare ground for ground-nesting bees and spent stalks for cavity-nesting bees, as well as diverse landscape features such as dead wood, rocks, leaves and mud. Have plants and nesting areas where pollinators can lay eggs. And keep the space free of pesticides that might harm them.

Take things slowly, adds Whitcomb, and be aware that you might get hooked. “I used to make gardens that would be a crazy riot of colour,” she says. “Now I have one that gives me pleasure and interest all year round. It’s far more rewarding than any gardening I’ve done in my life.”

When you do come across bumblebees, Colla asks that you upload photos to Bumble Bee Watch, a citizen science initiative that helps researchers track and conserve these species.

The Globe has five brand-new arts and lifestyle newsletters: Health & Wellness, Parenting & Relationships, Sightseer, Nestruck on Theatre and What to Watch. Sign up today.

Interact with The Globe