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The Buzz About Bees

Without bees, Cathy Kozma explains, there would be no honey—or apples!

For years, bees and Rodney Dangerfield have had something in common. But now, bees are getting the respect they deserve. Recent groundbreaking Canadian research is increasing our understanding of the vital role bees play in our ecosystem and food chain,, which will ultimately contribute to bee survival, especially in urban areas.

Why bees are important

Bees are the workhorses of the garden: more than 90 per cent of flowering plants need the assistance of a pollinator to procreate and, since bees are nature’s most prolific pollinators, they are essential to the survival of many plants. Without bees, one-third of the food we eat would not exist, including beans, tomatoes, onions, carrots, pears, squash, almonds, blueberries, oranges and apples. In 2010, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) declared that we must change our behaviour in order to save bees and that “pollination is not just a free service but one that requires investment and stewardship.” In Canada, pollination services performed by bees have been valued at $2.4 billion.

There are bees, and then there are honeybees

Of the 18,000 species of bees worldwide, 900 are native to Canada and 250 species live in the Greater Toronto Area. Native bees are being studied by Scott MacIvor, a doctoral student at York University and winner of a 2013 Toronto Botanical Garden Aster Award. His research focuses on how wild bees are adapting to city life, with special attention to their lives on green roofs. He has already found that above four to five storeys, bee diversity decreases markedly.

Although it has adjusted well to our climate, the world’s most important pollinator, the honey bee (Apis millifera), is not native to North America but was brought here from Africa and Europe. Honeybees are specifically adapted to pollinate plants—and as a bonus they produce a wonderful sweetener.

The taste of honey

Like fine wine or cheese, honey has a distinctive local flavour and colour, or terroir. These differences in the look and taste of honey, even among honeys from within an hour’s drive of Toronto, result from where and when bees forage for nectar and pollen, including the flowers in bloom and the mix of plants.

Colony Collapse Disorder

In the past decade the mass die-off of honeybee colonies has prompted concern among governments, conservationists, farmers and the public. In some parts of the world, up to 90 per cent of honeybees are dying. The cause of this phenomenon, called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), remains controversial, but it is likely due to a combination of factors, including bee diseases, habitat loss and harmful pesticides such as neonicotinoids (a.k.a. neonics).

Fifteen European Union countries have imposed a two-year ban on three types of neonicotinoids that are predominantly used in the treatment of corn and soybean seeds. The Ontario government’s establishment of the Bee Health Working Group is bringing stakeholders together to develop better agricultural practices in the use of these pesticides for this year’s planting season.

Mélissa Girard from the Centre de recherche en sciences animales de Deschambault (CRSAD) in Quebec is at the forefront of research into the mix of pollens bees collect while foraging. When resident in monocultures (large swaths of the same plant), colonies can suffer from a nutritional deficiency, which leads quickly to a decline in the overall health of both bees and the colony.

Keeping bees in the city

As an urban beekeeper in Toronto I have learned a lot: Toronto’s microclimate is hospitable to bees; the diversity of our gardens offers the variety of forage needed for a well-balanced bee diet; and the cosmetic pesticide ban in Toronto and Ontario has improved local conditions for bees. Feeding the public hunger for locally grown foods means that the success of urban beehives will not only provide local honey but also improve the bounty of Toronto’s urban gardens overall.

Cathy Kozma is the founder of Bees Are Life Inc., co-chair of the Toronto Beekeepers Co-operative and a Toronto Master Gardener.

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