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.

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.

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. You can also create bee hotels filled with replaceable nesting tubes.

Did you know messy yards help bees?

Bee in a bee house

How to build a bee house

Make a cosy home for native bees:

  • Use an empty milk carton (waterproof) with the spout cut off — leave the bottom intact — or a box about that size made of wood scraps (not cedar) for the walls.
  • Paint a wooden house a bright colour with exterior zero- or low-VOC (volatile organic compounds) paint. At first, the bees will fly around taking mental “snapshots,” but they’ll soon make a beeline to their new abode.
  • Fill the box with layered stacks of brown paper nest tubes, which you can buy at a garden store. Cut the tubes to six inches (15.75 centimetres) long, closing the end with tape or a staple, or fold them in half. Commercial nest tubes are 5/16 of an inch (.79 centimetres) in diameter, the exact size of an HB pencil. Make your own by rolling a piece of brown paper around a pencil, then pinch off the end and seal it with tape.
  • Hang the house somewhere out of the rain, facing south or east, at eye level, once the temperature outside has warmed to 12-14 C (54-57 F).
  • Dig down below your garden soil next to your bee house until you expose the clay layer or keep a bowl of moist clay near your bee house for the masons to use as construction material.
  • If you plan to make more than one bee house, be sure they’re different colours.

It may take a full season for the bees to find your house. If you don’t have any luck attracting locals, buy mason bees from a garden store or beekeeper.

How to attract other pollinators

Butterflies and hummingbirds are also essential pollinators. What may seem like a small contribution — a tiny flower pot or patch — can provide valuable habitat.

Create a pollinator-friendly garden

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