How to create a wild bee sanctuary

Mining bee

Wild bees need our help. Many populations are declining due to habitat loss, disease and pesticide poisoning. Domesticated honeybees managed for honey production and agricultural services are also struggling.

As our most important pollinators, bees provide one-third of the food we eat. They also allow wild plants to reproduce and produce berries, fruits and seeds. Bee losses pose a risk to our life support systems.

There are 20,000 known bee species worldwide and more than 800 native bee species in Canada of all sizes — the smallest is the size of the head of a pin! Each is unique and pollinates different plants at different times. For example, squash bees are the best for squash, pumpkins and gourds. Every species is beneficial to plants.

Each of us can create habitat to support local bee populations. Bees are more likely to thrive in your backyard, community or patio garden and on mixed farms than on acres devoted to single crops. Urban settings mean short flight paths and a variety of different plants and flowers to sample.

Learn how to tell bees, wasps and flies apart

Five steps to create your wild bee sanctuary:

1. Fill your yard with flowers

Bees rely on blooming wildflowers, shrubs and trees to provide food — nectar and pollen.

Flowers should blossom over the seasons, from early spring to late fall. Choose a diversity of native species of all shapes and sizes. Plant big patches (think bull’s eyes) of each for more efficient foraging (less distance for bees to travel).

Mow your lawn less and avoid herbicides that kill nectar-producing plants such as clover, creeping thyme and dandelions. Or get your yard off grass since it’s a wasteland for pollinators (and most wildlife).

2. Plant native

Native plants are species naturally found in your region. They provide bees with their only food source: nectar and pollen. Some native bees can only feed on pollen from specific groups of native plants. They’re great garden choices, because they’re adapted to local soil and weather conditions. If you plant them in the right spot, they’ll thrive with no extra watering, fertilizers or chemicals. Many are available at local garden centres. Join a native plant society to find the best local plant lists.

3. Go organic

Bees are insects, so using insecticides on your lawn and garden will kill them. Avoid plant-killing herbicides and plants pretreated with insecticides, like neonics. Buy pesticide-free plants and try time-tested techniques, like hand-picking pests and using physical barriers to keep pests out.

4. Just add water

Bees and other beneficial insects — ladybugs, butterflies, and predatory wasps — all need fresh water to drink. But most can’t land in open water. A creek, pond — even a bird bath — puts them at risk of drowning, crashing or being caught by predators.

A bee in a bee bath

How to make a bee bath

Use a shallow plate (an old chipped one or the lid of a pail works great). Place at ground level where you’ve noticed bee activity. Place a few flat stones in the plate to create landing pads or islands and safe places to crawl out should they fall in. Add fresh water but don’t submerge the stones. Birds and butterflies will use it, too. Replace the water every few days to eliminate mosquito larvae.

Your creation will also combat pests, so place the bee bath near sick plants to attract aphid eaters like ladybugs!

5. Offer nesting places

Honeybees and bumblebees live in social colonies, but most wild bee species are solitary. About two-thirds of solitary nesting bees use tunnels in the ground to lay their eggs. About one-third use hollowed out plant stems or tunnels in dead trees or fallen logs.

Did you know messy yards help bees? Leave patches of bare soil in your garden for ground-nesting bees. Leave plant stems standing through winter and keep dead trees or fallen logs.

Native wildflowers in Canada

These wildflowers are native to much of Canada. Local conservation and horticulture groups can help you find species native to your community. For more information, check our native plant guides for Eastern and Western Canada.

Planting wildflowers

The BIMBY Project

BIMBY (Bees In My Backyard) is a citizen science project that is helping to bring attention to Toronto’s more than 350 species of wild bees.

Learn more