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There are 110 species of bees in the Northwest Territories (NWT). The most widely recognizable species is the bumble bee, which has a furry body to help survive our cold climates. Another species is the honey bee. These bees, imported by a few honey producers, require constant attention to survive in our northern climate. Many native bees do not live in colonies. Mining bees make their homes underground. Others cut leaves to make a cigar-like nest in soil, tree snags or plant stems.
Bees are receiving a lot of global attention these days. When we think of bees, we often think of honey or bee stings. Bees are more than stings or honey. Bees make the difference between having food on our grocery shelves or not. They are crucial to our food growing.
Many food-bearing plants require pollination for the food, such as tomatoes, to grow. Plants are either male or female, or both. For the plant to grow food, pollen from the male part of the plant must reach the female part of the plant. Food production is better when the pollination occurs between plants instead of within the same one.
This is where bees help. When they feed on a plant, they also pick up some of the pollen and transport it to the next plant where they feed. The pollen falls on the female part of the plant and now that plant can produce food.
These are only a few of the foods that require pollination to grow. One-third of the world’s food crop is dependent on food pollination. Bees are important for the survival of many more species on this planet. Imagine what would happen if birds and bears had no berries to eat.
Bees are in crisis around the world. They are disappearing by the millions. The reasons are complex. Some of the reasons for the decline in bee populations are:
- Increase of flowerless landscapes. Much of the landscapes where humans live have no flowers. We pave parking lots, build roads and construct houses at an increasing rate. These are not bee-friendly landscapes.
- Use of pesticides. The residue of pesticides is picked up by bees and is often toxic to them. The bees often get disoriented and cannot find their way home, and die.
- Disease. Parasites attached to bees suck the bee’s fluid and infect them. Many bees, already weak because of some of the other issues on this list, are easily infected and die.
- Monocultures. Very large tracts of land are used to grow only one crop. Some of these crops, such as corn, are pollinated by wind and offer little for bees. Even though there is plant growth, this land is a desert to bees because they have nowhere to feed.
- Climate mismatch. Some bee species feed upon, and pollinate, only one type of flower. As bees are active for only a short period of time, they need to be out when their host plant is blooming. With climate changing so fast, it can be hard for bees to match their activity times with earlier flowering periods.
In the Northwest Territories (NWT), bees have not had to deal with most of these problems. Our bees may be in better shape than elsewhere in the world.
There are 110 species of bees in the NWT. The most widely recognizable species is the bumble bee, which has a furry body to help it survive our cold climates. Another is the honey bee. These bees, imported by a few honey producers, require constant attention to survive in our climate. Many of our native bees do not live in colonies. Mining bees, for example, make their homes underground, likely even in the soil of your garden. Others cut leaves to make a cigar-like nest in soil, tree snags or plant stems. Most live by themselves and not in large colonies.
You can help the world’s bee population or help your gardens be as productive as possible by doing some of the following to make your garden and yard bee-friendly:
- Plant local flowers. Plant flowers native to the NWT such as wild roses, cranberries, bearberries, and raspberries.
- Enjoy “weeds”. Many plants people consider weeds, such as fireweed and willows, actually provide great food for native bees. Consider not mowing part of your lawn near fences or walls. Fireweed and willow seedlings will start to grow on their own.
- Avoid pesticides. Many stores have stopped carrying pesticides and have even stopped selling flowers that are grown using pesticides because of their effect on bees. Learn to garden without pesticides. Stay informed about new pesticides. Neonicotinoid pesticides are believed to be the worst for causing harm to bees.
- Be a lazy yard worker in autumn. Forget about cleaning up your yard and garden in the fall. Consider not doing anything at all! Leaves and dead brambles are excellent shelters for our queen bees as they overwinter.
Bees in the NWT are generally doing well. Three species are endangered but the other 107 species are healthy. Next time you hear their friendly buzz, think about the food they are helping produce. Help them stay disease-free, have good sources of food and safe homes.
For more information about bees, see the Field Guide to Bumble Bees of the Northwest Territories, or contact NWTBugs@gov.nt.ca.