Some bees enjoy city life over country life, Guelph conference heard: Guelph Mercury

GUELPH— Fran Freeman clicks to the next slide in her presentation revealing an image of a bee holding up a pyramid of animals.

"Bees are a keystone species," the Toronto-based beekeeper said. "If the bee were to stop holding up that pyramid, the whole thing would be gone."

Around 55 people attended Freeman's workshop as part of the 34th annual Guelph Organic Conference, held at the University of Guelph this weekend. This particular talk focused on wild bees living in urban settings and how city-dwellers can take action to help these insects better adapt to their surroundings. 

There are more than 400 species of bee in Ontario and about a quarter of them live in urban areas, Freeman said. Compared to their rural counterparts, many of these wild pollinators in urban settings are thriving, adapting well to their surroundings. She said theses species are "synurbic", having higher densities in urban spaces in comparison to rural areas.

As domesticated and wild bee populations decline in rural settings, it is important to see where populations are succeeding, Freeman said.

In the country, bees have to deal with monocultures, cash cropping, intensive pesticide use with neonicotinoids, genetically modified organisms and loss of field margins.

In urban settings there is diversity of habitat, diversity of forage, bans on cosmetic pesticide use, no genetically modified organisms and increased urban agriculture. It's also usually warmer in cities.

Many bee species have found a way to adapt to life in urban settings, she said. Some leafcutter bees have begun using plastic bags as nesting material, while other bees make their nests in community gardens, or backyards.

The city's wild spaces provide a pathway for pollinators to travel and expand, but these pathways are often fragmented. 

The ever-changing nature of cities can create loss of habitat, especially around the city's edges. Many species can only travel short distances in search of flowers, so community gardens throughout the city are important.

Freeman spoke of planting pollinator-friendly gardens, or leaving out materials like sandy soil, tufts of grass, twigs or logs so bees can create nests nearby. City boulevards could also be used as flowerbeds for native species and then the reach of pollinators would expand throughout the city.

Angela Michieli, a beekeeper from Innisfil, was moderating Freeman's workshop. She said the workshop spoke volumes to what is currently happening in the beekeeping world.

The loss for Ontario beekeepers over the last two years has been around 80 per cent, due to several bad winters, the use of neonicotinoids on farmland and other factors, she said. 

"People in urban societies can contribute a lot more per capita than they can in agricultural areas," she said. "Those little pockets of forested or conservation areas (in cities) are where those pollinators are going to reside."

Victoria Bick sat in the back and listened closely to Freeman's talk. The Hamilton-native was attending organic conference for the fifth time and she said she was excited to hear of a practical way urban dwellers can do something for pollinators.

"Everyone can put a little something in their garden," she said. "Collectively, you can provide a lot of habitat." 

Bick said if anyone receives pushback in creating a space welcoming to bees, "Just say you're making a butterfly garden," she said. Bees just happen to be attracted to the same type of setting.