Citizen scientists are trying to save Toronto’s wild bees

Bee Hotel Photo by Shutterstock/Timelynx

Last week, the David Suzuki Foundation in collaboration with the University of Toronto Scarborough’s department of biological sciences launched the Bees in My Backyard (BIMBY) project. Not to be mistaken with NIMBY (not in my backyard), BIMBY’s focus “is to draw more attention to those wild bees who are quietly pollinating things in our backyards,” says Jode Roberts, manager of the David Suzuki Foundation’s BIMBY project.

The U of T Scarborough research team, lead by assistant professor Scott MacIvor, and a research team out of York University have already discovered over 340 species of wild bees in Toronto. “Which is crazy,” Roberts says. But many of these bees are threatened by climate change, pesticide, and habitat loss. According to a 2017 study, 75 per cent of flying insects have disappeared over the last 27 years in western Germany, a trend scientists are worried could exist globally.

“Back when I was a kid, my parents would actually buy windshield wiper fluid that got the bug guts off your windshield,” Roberts says. “It seems kind of macabre now, but I remember it. There was bug-be-gone windshield wiper fluid. But now, if you drive around those same places there are a lot less flying insects.”

That’s why BIMBY is recruiting citizen scientists in Toronto to create natural habitats for these wild bees in their backyards. For $125 per household, participants receive a bee hotel (created out of a PVC pipe and paper tubes), 10 native wild flower seeds that are good for the bees, resources on how to identify bees and plants, and access to three workshops—one in the spring, one in the summer, one in the fall—led by MacIvor and other wild bee and plant experts, designed to help participants identify what’s going on in their garden.

For now, the project is limited to Toronto. “I’d love to offer this to a greater geography,” Roberts says, “but the poor grad students would have to drive all over Canada.” MacIvor’s researchers visit each site to study and record the type of bees appearing in participants’ backyards. They’re “looking at the interplay between the built urban form, climate, and the different species that will show up in your yard based on your proximity to a park or whether there’s a tree or whether there’s a garden with a bunch of flowers. Those types of factors,” Roberts says.

Participants are asked to also identify bees, collecting valuable information for the researchers. The nesting tubes of the bee hotels are designed to attract cavity-nesting bees like leaf-cutter and mason bees.

Wild bees are great for your garden. As prime pollinators, they’re attracted to nectar as a source of energy, and pollen as a source of protein. They fly from flower to flower, carrying pollen with them in order to feed their young. But their population decline is often overshadowed by the plight of the honey bee, or they get lumped in with wasps.

“Wasps can be a little more aggressive and sting you repeatedly,” Roberts says. They’re most likely to show up at your barbecue, attracted to fats and sugars, whereas wild bees are more interested in your garden. In fact, bees aren’t inclined to sting you as they end up disemboweling themselves.

And unlike honey bees, 70 per cent of wild bees in Toronto nest in holes in the ground, Roberts says.

This is BIMBY’s second year and the project’s goal is to expand the number of participating households to 150. At the moment, they have 50 spots left and participants can register on the David Suzuki website. For those outside of Toronto or who aren’t able to register but want to get involved, they can either donate to the project or “create a better habitat in your garden,” Roberts says. “That’s providing food in the source of nectar and pollen, so flowers that are blooming throughout the year.”



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