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What you can do in your garden to help bees and butterflies

A bee lands on a flower in a garden in Chelsea, Que., Wednesday June 25, 2014.

Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Toronto's been called Hogtown, T.O. and, lately, The 6. Now it has a new handle: bee city. The title is a recognition of Toronto's efforts to become a better place for bees and other pollinators by restoring their habitats. It's also a rallying cry for gardeners to drop the pesticide and let the dandelions sprout, said Shelly Candel, the founder of Bee City Canada who lobbied Toronto City Council to adopt the title. She hopes it will spur Toronto and its residents to seed native plants wherever they can to help the hundreds of wild bee species and countless butterflies and other pollinators. Hydro right-of-ways, front lawns and roadside ditches are all prime areas to transform into floral sanctuaries. "What the city needs to do is look at our landscape differently," she said. "It's really about beautifying the city. Let's look at grass as a desert. Let's look at dandelions as pollinator food. Let's think of things differently."

Here's a look at what you can do to help the city live up to its new name, as well as some common misconceptions.

Who are you calling a honeybee?

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The bees in your garden are probably not honeybees. They're leaf-cutter bees, mining bees, bumble bees or sweat bees, and many others. They don't make honey and they don't live in hives. They likely live alone, and many don't sting. If they are males, they don't even have stingers. They're all vital to biodiversity and responsible for making the flowers bloom and the tomatoes grow.

Laurence Packer, a biology professor at Toronto's York University and a well-known expert on native bees, saw just one honeybee in his backyard last year, compared with 40 different types of native bees. Managed honeybees get all the attention, but it's the hundreds of native bee species that do most of the work in Toronto, he says. These bees make their homes in holes in the ground, in piles of twigs and in whatever cavities they find in houses, sheds and even patio furniture. "They go generally completely unnoticed by people and they are responsible for almost all of the pollination of backyard flowers," he said.

Although the declines in honeybees can be easier to track because they are managed in hives near farmland, less is known about the effect of industrial agriculture and habitat loss on the health of native bees. The rusty patch bumble bee used to be common in Southern Ontario, but is now rarely seen, Prof. Packer said. Toronto's status as a haven for bees and other pollinators is threatened by, among other things, pesticide usage. The city banned lawn herbicides and insecticides in 2003, but the chemicals linked to pollinator deaths are still finding their way into residential gardens, through flowers grown at nurseries, and compost, he said.

Despite its concrete canyons and car-clogged roads, Toronto's ravines and gardens offer bees and other pollinators a varied feast. There are more than 360 species of native bees working the city's flowers, and countless other pollinators. Beekeeper Fred Davis of Toronto Honey said his rural counterparts know Toronto, largely free of large-scale pesticide use, is a good home for honeybees. "They don't suffer the way they could in the farmland," Mr. Davis said.

But native bee experts say honeybees are an invasive species that belongs in farmland, not urban backyards or parks. "They compete for flowers. They can spread diseases," said Scott MacIvor, a bee researcher and lecturer at the University of Toronto. A colony of bees is highly organized and can quickly strip an area of pollen, pushing out other native pollinators, Prof. Packer adds. "Honeybees have got this remarkable social organization whereby if an individual honeybee finds a really good crop of flowers, she comes back and does this excited waggle dance and recruits lots of nest mates to go to the same patch of flowers – with the result that the resources there are rapidly depleted. And there's going to be little or none left for other species."

What you can do

If you want to help the bees, leave the hives to the farmers and make your garden a place for native bees and pollinators. Plant native perennial flowers, leave bare patches of ground for their nests, and stop spreading mulch that can block their burrows. Bees and other pollinators like things a little messy because it gives them places to lay their eggs. So cut back the shrubs, bundle the twigs and leave them out for bees to nest in. Bees prefer sunny areas to shade and like decaying logs, preferably facing south. They also prefer simple, open flowers that offer easy access to pollen over roses and other flowers that have densely packed petals that are hard to squeeze through.

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"Stop pruning, stop spraying," said Beatrice Olivastri of Friends of the Earth Canada, an environmental group that has launched a campaign called Let it Bee, urging Torontonians to convert their pristine lawns into habitats for pollinators. "It's time to change how we garden and landscape to make sure we protect wild bees." Prof. Packer said gardeners should buy organically grown plants that don't contain traces of neonicotinoid pesticides or other chemicals favoured by the horticultural industry. Otherwise, "we're putting pesticides into our gardens without even knowing."

Friends of the Earth has found half of garden-centre plants contained enough neonics to harm bees, but Ms. Olivastri said she is encouraged some retailers are responding to public concern by phasing them out. Rona Inc. says 95 per cent of its plants were grown without neonics, and Lowe's Cos. says its nursery will be neonic-free by 2019.

Risky rise in hobby beekeeping

Growing awareness of the diseases, loss of habitat and chemical threats faced by pollinators has spurred interest not only in planting bee-friendly gardens, but in beekeeping itself. A growing number of businesses are offering homeowners hives for rent, or selling shares of the honey produced at hives on buildings or commercial properties.

Toronto Honey's Mr. Davis, a beekeeper in Toronto for 12 years, wonders if this is "too much of a good thing." The rise of rookie beekeepers risks spreading parasites among honeybees, and annoying neighbours. "As long as you're a responsible beekeeper and you know what you're doing, you have a higher chance of preventing things that could taint all beekeepers as being a nuisance," he said.

"If you don't pay attention to your hives at the right time, then they will swarm. That could freak people out. If you're responsible and you know what you're doing, you medicate appropriately, then not only are you preventing a public nuisance … you're not going to infect other bees and other beekeepers' yards in the city."

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Mr. Davis is worried by plans by some companies to add as many as 200 honeybee hives this season. Provincial law bans honeybee hives within 30 metres of another property, and 10 metres of a road, which pretty much rules out backyard beekeeping.

"Most of our installations fit within that, and if they don't we'll install anyway and make sure the bees are happy and the people are happy," said Declan Rankin Jardin, 24, co-founder of Montreal-based Alvéole, which plans to install 120 Toronto hives in June, some in backyards. Alvéole medicates its hives to keep parasites under control, and services them every two weeks to add new boxes to accommodate growth and prevent swarming, he said.

"If a neighbour is complaining, they'll send an inspector and basically if it's really bad they'll give us 30 days to move a hive. That's never happened in Toronto. I've been sitting down with the city, too, [to] figure out a way to be more lenient or just make sure to encourage urban beekeeping without just letting anybody do anything."

How your neighbourhood affects honey

Every gardener plants a different mix of flowers and vegetables that bloom at different times – lilacs in the spring; black-eyed Susans later; dandelions all season long. For the beekeepers who work in the city, this randomness yields honey that is unpredictable and varied. "Each neighbourhood has its different taste and aroma just because of the different flowers in the neighbourhood," said Alvéole's Mr. Rankin Jardin. "If you go to the Annex, it's different than if you're downtown or in the Beaches. Sometimes it can be minty or floral or appley."

Also, award-winning. Mr. Davis, whose hive-share business Toronto Honey has bees on several buildings and industrial lands around the city, won first place at last year's Royal Agricultural Winter Fair for his honey. The honey came from colonies atop the Canadian Opera Company's Queen Street hall. In the heart of the city, those bees feed on "anything and everything that's in bloom," Mr. Davis said.

Nearby Osgoode Hall's grounds and the city gardens on University Avenue are likely foraging places for the honeybees. But he wonders if the bees, which range three to five kilometres, make it to the waterfront parks to the south or Allan Gardens to the east.

Yellow jackets give bees a bad rap

Bee city? Try yellow-jacket city. Anyone who has had a picnic late in the Toronto summer has been tormented by the yellow jackets known for their aggressive behaviour and love of whatever is on your plate. They give bees a bad rap, but they aren't bees. Like honeybees, yellow jackets are social insects and live in large colonies ruled by a queen. When that colony's larvae have devoured all the protein in the nest by about August, the yellow jackets descend on the nearest plate of hot dogs and whatever else you have the nerve to eat outdoors. But unless you are allergic to their stings, they aren't entirely evil. Prof. Packer says yellow jackets provide some pollination and mainly live on a diet of other, often bothersome insects.

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