A Garden for the Rusty-Patched Bumblebee provides all the information gardeners need to take action to support and protect pollinators, by creating habitat in yards and community spaces, on balconies and boulevards, everywhere!
It’s not unusual, when gardeners talk about insects, for the word “problem” to be the next word uttered. The idea that most insects are “pests” to be eradicated is so deeply entrenched in the gardening world that it takes hard work—a basic rethink of approaches and assumptions—to break free of this notion and, instead, to see insects as members of a hugely intricate and intimate community, in relationship with all else.
Yes, we love butterflies! But caterpillars eating our garden plants? Probably not so much. We’re starting to value bees—but wasps, ants, aphids, beetles, plant bugs and flies? It’s much harder for us to rally around them and to encourage them to visit—and make use of—the gardens we plant and work to protect. And as for celebrating the death and decay that are fundamental to the life of the garden—the dead leaves, dead plant stalks, dead wood and, indeed, the dead plants that result from any failed attempts to grow them—well, that’s something we try to sweep away, out of sight, as quickly as possible.
Yes, we love butterflies! But caterpillars eating our garden plants? Probably not so much.
This book calls on all of us to garden from an entirely different starting point. We are advocating for gardens that actively participate in the natural processes that make all life on earth possible—to see our role as stewards of biodiversity.
What are our personal responsibilities to the land we tend? This question connects inextricably, profoundly, with climate change. The science is clear: habitat loss and fragmentation cause species loss and worsen the effects of climate change. We need to protect remaining habitat, but we also need to create it in places where we have green-paved it with lawns and non-native species. In the face of climate change, we need to create landscapes of resilience: in other words, creating habitat is a climate action.
In this book, we’re focusing on bees and other pollinators (without them, there would be no life), but there’s more to it than that. We want to encourage all of us to see our place in the garden as a place of complexity and questioning, action and inaction, learning and unlearning, honouring and wondering, watching and listening, hoping and trying and maybe failing…and then hoping again.
We want to encourage all of us to see our place in the garden as a place of complexity and questioning, action and inaction, learning and unlearning, honouring and wondering, watching and listening, hoping and trying and maybe failing…and then hoping again.
“Hope”—something so many of us hold onto for dear life—is a messy, unfinished word, incomplete without action. We hope you will take the words in this book to heart and into action—to create the spaces in our communities, in our lives, in the places we tend and care for, where pollinators can thrive and bring life to all.
The Rusty-Patched Bumblebee and Other Native Pollinators
Native, or “wild” bees—that is, bees that occur naturally within a region—are some of the most misunderstood creatures around. Popular misconceptions are that they all make honey, they’re all black and yellow, they all sting and they all live in hives. But the majority of Ontario’s native bees don’t live in hives (they are solitary), are not black and yellow (they are a variety of colours, including blue and green!), do not sting—and none of them make honey.
There are approximately 860 different bee species in Canada, with more than 350 species in southern Ontario. Types of native bees include bumblebees, sweat bees, mining bees, cuckoo bees, leafcutter bees and cellophane bees, among others. And there are more to discover. In 2010, bee expert Dr. Jason Gibbs found a species—in downtown Toronto—that had never before been described to science. Consider that for a moment: a bee species found…in the middle of the largest city in the country…described to science for the first time…just over ten years ago.
In 2010, bee expert Dr. Jason Gibbs found a species—in downtown Toronto—that had never before been described to science.
Urban habitats are, in many ways, quite hospitable for bees, with a diversity of plants for nectar and pollen and an array of habitats for nesting, mating and shelter. Anywhere we live can provide habitat, whether it’s in a big city, a small town or a suburb or on a farm. But some species of native bees are in trouble. Take the rusty-patched bumblebee, for example. As recently as the 1980s, it was abundant in southern Ontario—one of the most common bumblebee species in the region. Its extensive historical range spans from the eastern US west to the Dakotas, north to southern Ontario and south to Georgia. However, by the early 2000s, it had all but disappeared from Canada and much of the US.
In 2012, the rusty-patched bumblebee had the unfortunate distinction of being the first native bee in Canada to be officially designated as endangered. One of the authors of this book, Sheila Colla, was the last person in Canada to identify this bee in the wild, in 2009, by the side of a road in Pinery Provincial Park. Sheila had spent every summer since 2005 searching for the rusty-patched bumblebee in places where they had previously been recorded. On that summer day in 2009, she had found none and was on her way out of the park when, from the passenger window of the car, she spotted the distinctive rusty patch of a lone specimen. This sighting was the last known in Canada.
The causes of this bee’s rapid and catastrophic decline have not yet been confirmed, but speculation centres on several negative factors: loss and fragmentation of habitat, including nesting and foraging opportunities; disease and competition from non-native honeybees and managed bumblebees in greenhouse and field crops; pesticides; and climate change. Given the dramatic speed and geographic extent of bee loss, conservation scientists believe a new disease brought in by managed bees is the main driver of decline.
The widespread loss of a formerly common species is a phenomenon echoing around the world. In Europe, approximately half of bumblebee species are in decline and only a few are increasing. Of the 25 known bumblebee species in the United Kingdom, three are considered extinct and at least seven have undergone significant declines. In North America, there is evidence suggesting that one-quarter of the 46 native bumblebee species are at risk of extinction. For example, the relative abundance of the American bumblebee—a once-common species—has fallen dramatically: by 89 per cent between 2007–2016 and 1907–2006. Other once-common bee species now rarely seen in Ontario include the yellow-banded bumblebee, the yellow bumblebee and the bohemian cuckoo bumblebee.
Other once-common bee species now rarely seen in Ontario include the yellow-banded bumblebee, the yellow bumblebee and the bohemian cuckoo bumblebee.
Reversing this trend, and ensuring that common species remain common, will take committed action at all levels of government and by everyone. And one important place for individuals to start is by creating habitat gardens—connected landscapes full of diverse native plants known to provide nectar, pollen and habitat for native bees, maintained using practices that support the pollinators necessary for all life on earth.