Four tips for a bee-friendly yard

The powerful pollinators are essential to our agricultural ecosystems — here are a few things you can do right in your own backyard to ensure they thrive.

Bee atop a dandelion. (Photo: Getty Images)

You don’t have to be a beekeeper to create a safe haven for the beneficial pollinators in your own backyard, according to a U of A expert. (Photo: Getty Images)

Did you know that to craft a single pound of honey, bees fly around 80,000 kilometres and visit some two million flowers? However, their impact goes far beyond supplying sweetener for your beverages and baked goods. 

“Bees are really important for most agricultural ecosystems because they pollinate a lot of crops,” says Olav Rueppell, professor in the Department of Biological Sciences, whose research focuses on honeybee biology and health.

“The food you're eating — fruits, nuts, vegetables — is dependent on insect pollination. In our modern agricultural landscape, it’s difficult for native pollinators to fulfil that role, so we use honeybees as a tool to get the pollination done as efficiently as possible.” 

Honeybees may be the most recognizable, but they certainly aren’t the only type of bee to be aware of. According to Rueppell, there are about 370 species of bees within Alberta alone. And, while beekeepers tend to honeybees, many other bee species could benefit from a little more nurturing.

“A lot of native bees are actually much more vulnerable than honeybees, and are intrinsically valuable because they represent biodiversity that is native to Alberta.” 

Though you may not be able to combat diseases or viruses that target bees, Rueppell recommends some bee-friendly measures to consider when planning and tending your yards and gardens. 

Create a garden that blooms throughout the season

There’s nothing more idyllic than a backyard where everything is in full bloom, bursting with colour and packed with all kinds of fruits, flowers and vegetables. But yards where everything blooms at once actually give bees a much shorter window to access all the nectar and pollen they need, Rueppell says. 

“If you’re thinking about your garden, ideally you’d be not having just one big bloom and then nothing for the rest of the year. You’d have something that blooms at different times of the year, especially with perennials.”

Thanks to Alberta’s frosty climate much of the year, the growing season is already shorter than in many other areas. Make the most of it by picking plants that bloom at different times, so bees will always have access to nectar and pollen in your yard.

Include a diverse range of plants

It might be tempting to select one or two flowers that are known to draw bees in, but Rueppell says you actually want to include a diverse range of plants in your backyard. This is because not all bee species are alike in terms of what they seek out on their flights.

“Some bees, like honeybees, are generalists. They take almost every flower they can find. But some of the native individual bee species we have are more specialized, so they prefer certain flowers,” says Rueppell. “I would always say try to go for diversity rather than just specializing in one or a few plants.”

And don’t think flowers are the only plants bees are drawn to. As Rueppell explains, fruit trees can be very appealing to bees when they’re in bloom. There are several fragrant, flowering herbs that also catch their attention as they’re buzzing by.

“From a plant protection perspective, you probably want to stick as much to native plants as possible in Alberta,” he adds.

If you’re looking for inspiration, the Alberta Native Bee Council has a spreadsheet with their recommendations for native flowering plants that pollinators find irresistible, and the Pollinator Partnership offers planting guides tailored to specific regions in Canada. 

Reduce or eliminate pesticide use

Pesticides can be harmful for a wide range of creatures, including bees. While you may not be able to control what’s done in public outdoor spaces, you can make changes in your own yard to help pollinators thrive.

“Reduce your own personal pesticide use,” recommends Rueppell. “I understand everybody wants to have a green lawn, but a few dandelions here and there are not going to kill the appeal of your house.” 

Rueppell also suggests being wary of products that claim to be safe, as the promises on the packaging might not be entirely accurate.

“Even for some so-called bee-safe pesticides, they might not kill the bees outright, but there are some studies that show there are more subtle effects affecting their behaviour and physiology,” he says, “especially if they’re used off-label or in excessive quantities.”

Leave opportunities for nesting 

When you envision where bees congregate after a long day of buzzing around the fields and yards in your neighbourhood, you might picture the classic hive. However, only certain bees are social and live in colonies housed in these types of spaces — others are solitary and nest in the ground instead. 

To help foster bees who dwell in the ground, don’t be so quick to clear away all the debris from your yard. 

“A lot of the native bees are relying on dead plant material, like dry sticks or other leftovers from the last year,” explains Rueppell. “If we clean our yards too thoroughly of debris then we’re depriving these species of nesting materials.” 

Additionally, resist the urge to cultivate every square inch of your backyard. Instead, try to leave some areas a bit more natural. 

“Some [species] are nesting in the bare ground, so they really rely on caches of ground that are not disturbed. If people have larger yards, then leaving a little bit of open soil is also really helpful for some of those ground-nesting bees.”