A Garden for the Rusty-Patched Bumblebee: Creating Habitat Gardens for Native Pollinators is an inspiring and practical guide that will help gardeners create habitats full of life and learn about what is needed to take action to support and protect pollinatorsBy Lorraine Johnson and Sheila Colla
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.
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.
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.
Excerpted from A Garden for the Rusty-Patched Bumblebee: Creating Habitat for Native Pollinators (Ontario and Great Lakes Edition), © Lorraine Johnson and Sheila Colla, illustrations © Ann Sanderson. Published 2022 by Douglas & McIntyre Ltd. This article is originally published in Canadian Geographic.