The bees’ needs
In the Maritimes, a new species of salmon is swimming its way over from Russia. In Toronto, one environmental advocate says a rash of condo construction is better than no building at all. And on Parliament Hill, a petition is pushing MPs to ban Canada’s most popular pesticide.
Spring is also here, and my neighbours have stepped up their garden game. Everywhere I go, front yards are full of flowers, and I can see volunteers getting their hands dirty at my local community garden. We’ve been chatting in the CNO newsroom about No Mow May, an increasingly popular but contentious campaign to cut back on yard work in the name of pollinators. So, this week, I decided to ask an expert whether ditching your lawn mower for the month is good for the birds, bees and bugs around us. Read on to find out what she had to say.
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Looking for more CNO reads? You can find them at the bottom of this email.
To mow, or not to mow?
Every spring, people around the world participate in No Mow May, a month-long pledge to avoid cutting their grass for the sake of pollinators. The idea has grown in popularity and is now endorsed by conservation groups and even some Canadian municipalities.
Leaving your lawn alone for a month, the thinking goes, helps flowering plants bloom, providing an early spring food source for bees, butterflies and other creatures that play a crucial role in protecting Earth’s biodiversity (even though it’s not exactly great for your grass). But when it comes to protecting Canada’s native bees, conservation scientist Sheila Colla tells me, foregoing your lawn mower doesn’t really cut it.
That’s because the non-native plants that crop up on an untamed lawn are not necessarily great food for Canada’s native bees, says Sheila, an associate professor who holds the York Research Chair in Interdisciplinary Conservation Science at York University. And the grass where your kids play — or your pets relieve themselves — isn’t the best habitat for them, either, thanks to all the foot traffic.
“There's so much good intention out there,” she explains, but No Mow May oversimplifies the complex relationships between native pollinators and the plants that support them. “(There’s) all of this misinformation that comes from not understanding what a native bee is versus a non-native bee, what a native spring plant is versus a non-native spring plant.”
A lot of your ideas about bees probably come from non-native species — mine certainly do. Picture one right now, and you likely imagine something like this:
But that’s a hive-dwelling, black-and-yellow European honeybee, a carry-over of colonialism and one of the most common bee species on the planet.
In Canada, our 865 known species of native bees defy stereotypes. None of them make honey. Most don’t sting. Native bumblebees might live in a hive of a couple hundred, but most native bees are solitary. And forget yellow and black stripes: Canada’s bees come in a range of colours, including green, blue, orange and silver. Here’s a picture of Toronto’s official bee, the green metallic sweat bee:
The same misconceptions exist when it comes to the plants that native bees need to thrive, which is where No Mow May comes in. The dandelions that grow on your unmowed lawn, for example, are native to the U.K., where this trend began. But they’re essentially fast food for Canada’s bees, Sheila says. Our native species hibernate — again, unlike European honeybees — and need protein to make up for their winter-long nap, which dandelions don’t really provide.
Instead of ditching our lawn mowers, Sheila says we should learn more about native pollinators and plants in the places we live and how they help one another in nature. Last year, she co-wrote a book alongside writer, editor and community advocate Lorraine Johnson that unpacks the complexity of native pollinators and how to create habitats that support them.
From bees to butterflies, wasps, moths, beetles and more, each pollinator has “different relationships with plants, and we don't even fully understand them,” she explains. “So, planting native plants means that we're supporting these relationships” that help native pollinators thrive.
In Canada, early bloomers — pussy willows, serviceberries and even maple trees in Ontario — tend to have more of the high-protein food native bees are looking for, Sheila says. Most of the flowers we associate with spring — crocuses, tulips, daffodils — are, again, European imports that don’t have the same relationship to native bees in Canada.
Here are some tips for creating a pollinator-friendly habitat around your home:
Plant a border of native plants. Surrounding your lawn with native plants gives native bees a high-quality food source that doesn’t come with the danger of being trampled by kids or pets playing in the yard. “Bees don't like being stepped on,” Sheila says.
Plant a tree. A flowering tree doesn’t take up much space but provides a much bigger food source for native bees than your unmowed lawn. Planting just one serviceberry tree, for example, “will have more flowers than as many dandelions as you would have let grow in May,” she adds.
Give up grass entirely. This approach is not for everyone, but you can also join the growing number of people who are letting go of their lawns altogether and instead opting for a garden of native plants.
As far as native bees go, scientists have only really assessed the conservation status of our 42 species of bumblebees, Sheila explains. About a third of them are at risk of extinction, with some bumblebee populations plummeting by more than 90 per cent in just a couple decades. Scientists think a new disease — kind of like COVID — was introduced from managed bees, decimating these fast-disappearing species. “It's the only thing that explains such a large decline over such a large landscape,” Sheila explains.
Protecting these species begins with finding them and learning more about what they need, she adds, and everyday people can play a role in that. Sheila helps to run Bumble Bee Watch, a citizen science program that encourages people to snap pictures of the bees they see. Anyone can upload their photos to the Bumble Bee Watch platform, identify the bee species they’ve found and have experts verify that information. This helps scientists know where to find rare or endangered species, and understand different bees’ conservation needs.
These kinds of citizen science projects can pay off — the endangered rusty-patched bumblebee is a testament to this. Sheila was the last person to see one in Canada more than a decade ago. But citizen scientists have helped uncover populations in the U.S., “just from people sharing photos of bees that they come across,” she says. “Having more eyes out there looking for the rare species will help us find them and then protect them.”
Ultimately, protecting native bees isn’t as simple as giving up your lawn mower for a month, but Sheila still believes we can change our behaviour to better protect these pollinators.
“I know people are capable of learning these things,” she tells me. Her kids have learned everything there is to know about dinosaurs; if they can memorize the Latin names and dining habits of now-extinct species, why can’t adults learn about bees?
“There's no reason for us to not be a little bit more nuanced and to extend our conversations to understand that different animal species require different habitats, require different plants, live in different ways and nest in different places.”
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