Befriend native bees: give them a home: Wild bees pollinate what honeybees cannot

By: Tessa Holloway, North Shore News
August 17, 2011

Beekeeper Ric Erikson holds an example of a store-bought orchard bee home and a homemade style that can be easily constructed for the solitary species of bees such as orchard or mason bees that help to pollinate our gardens.

IT’S not just people who are buzzing in North Shore community gardens this summer, according to local bee expert Ric Erikson.

Erikson has been volunteering at the Queen Mary community garden, working with gardeners and the school to protect native bee populations, which unlike European honey bees don’t remain in nests all winter.

Instead, females burrow underground and hibernate before digging out to lay eggs in the spring, but are sometimes killed by gardeners digging up the soil.

Erikson has been trying to increase habitat and inform gardeners on how to protect the bees, and in isolated cases at least the efforts seem to be paying off.

“The bees we saw from last year have seen a large increase in their population for this year, and there’s a lot more bee types in our garden,” says Erikson. “I’ve identified nine different types occurring in our garden this year where there was only three last year.”

Disappearing honeybee populations have been in the news in recent years with scientists puzzling over “colony collapse disorder,” where bees leave their nests and don’t return for reasons people don’t fully understand. Each winter, local beekeepers have lost about a third of their honeybees, said Erikson.

Still, native bee populations have been hit even harder. In British Columbia, most native bee populations have declined by 50 per cent.

The western bumblebee, formerly one of the most common species here, has almost entirely disappeared from southwestern B.C., according to information from the Xerces Society, a Portlandbased conservation society that focuses on native bees.

Bees are hugely important for pollinating plants, but honeybees can’t pollinate many of the local produce, such as cranberries, tomatoes and blueberries, making wild native bee preservation necessary, said Erikson. “For the last four years in the Fraser Valley there has not been enough bees to pollinate the crops that are there, so it’s really quite a serious issue, and what’s happening here on the North Shore is we’ve had that same loss and decline of native bees,” he said.

On the North Shore, Erikson is trying to educate gardeners and school kids to help save native bee species.

He has plans to visit five elementary schools

this September, and is working with teachers to introduce a program where kids can build nests and put them out each year in the spring and take them in come autumn.

As well, he’s run workshops with gardeners in the hopes of educating them on steps they can take to save bees.

First, he recommends gardeners wait until spring before doing any digging in the garden. He also suggests gardeners avoid cutting up hollow-stemmed plants for compost after September, as native bees often hibernate in the stalks.

Finally, planting native plants provides more food for native bees.

While colony collapse disorder is still a problem for honeybees, he said most beekeepers can replenish their stocks from commercial providers, albeit at significant cost.

There are currently 25 beekeepers on the North Shore, but so far no organization for local bee enthusiasts. That could soon change, said Erikson.

“We’re at the beginning stages of forming a bee club for the honeybee keepers, and we’ll incorporate the native bee plans,” he said.

Read the article in North Shore News