Bee Safe

Janet Mackey, Cathy Kavassalis, Claudette Sims – Halton Master Gardeners

Humans cannot exist without pollinating insects, especially solitary bees, bumblebees, and honey bees. In fact, pollinators provide us with 35% of our diet including colourful fruits and nutritious vegetables. Here’s a wonderful guide to the pollination provided by various insects, most of which are bees. In addition to being responsible for so much good food, pollinators are also responsible for the pollination 90% of plants. Without pollination, these plants would be unable to reproduce and this would severely impact habitat as well as food sources for many creatures. Even wasps are a valuable part of our ecosystem. Many parasitize pests, reducing the damage to favourite plants. However, for some individuals, bees and wasps can cause a great deal of fear and even be life threatening.  There are changes that can be made in your landscape to reduce the risk of stings.

Left to Right: Mason Bee and early season very efficient pollinator, Bumble Bee gathering nectar & pollen, Braconid wasp parasitizing tomato hornworm, Tachnid fly which does not sting and is beneficial in the garden,

Suggestions to Reduce the Chance of Being Stung in the Garden

While only 1% of people who are stung go into anaphylactic shock (Pollinator Partnership) – this number includes about 0.5% of children and 3% of adults who have an actual allergy to stings from bees, wasps or ants. These allergies are extremely serious and need to properly assessed and treated by medical professionals. There are in addition, a great many individuals with a fear of stings. Fears are often based in real and traumatic experiences of being stung by insects. If this fear is debilitating it is known as cnidophobia. While the following suggestions may reduce the number of stinging insects, it is of course impossible to completely restrict flying insects from a property or while participating in daily routines (For example, many wasp species will find aphids in trees and shrubs. Even water (i.e., pools, wet towels, birdbaths etc.) can be enough to attract a thirsty insect).

  1. Select wind pollinated plants (see lists below)
  2. Choose plants that bloom in early spring and late fall when you’re less likely to be spending time outdoors
  3. Focus on plants that provide texture and interesting foliage rather than colourful blooms (ferns, grasses, sedges etc. see lists below)
  4. Avoid areas where nests are likely to be defended – and do not throw objects at a nest (insects will feel threatened and become aggressive – keep back 20-30 feet)
  5. Avoid fruit bearing plants
  6. Do not use or wear strong-scents (i.e., colognes, perfumes, soaps)
  7. Wear subdued colours but not dark clothing (i.e., no bright or floral prints)
  8. Wear shoes!
  9. Wash hands and face if sticky after eating
  10. Move slowly and calmly if bees are around you & avoid swatting at bees near you as this can make them feel threatened and become more aggressive, perhaps stinging
  11. Be cautious operating heat generating, vibrating machinery in the vicinity of a nest as some insects may become aggressive (i.e., lawn mowers)
  12. Decoy nests? Reviews are mixed, but you may want to read this story. Me and the Hornet Queen: When the Wasp Decoys Don’t Work

‘A Bee, or Not A Bee’

Bee Basics

  • Many species of our native bee populations are threatened, endangered and some are even extinct. Read: ‘It’s almost too late:’ Canada protects honey bees but native bee species are becoming endangered
  • Most of the decline can be attributed to habitat loss of forests, wetlands, and meadows. Gardeners can play a role in providing habitat by choosing suitable plants and providing nesting areas.
  • Honeybees are not native to North America but brought by European settlers – while disease is an issue within colonies the species survival is not at risk
  • Bees are generally ‘hairier’ than wasps
  • Bees/Wasps have 2 sets of wings
  • Only female bees have stingers
  • Wasps have thinner bodies & a ‘waist’
  • Most bees are small and go unnoticed – some are even as small as a mosquito
  • There are two kinds of bee behaviour: social or solitary
    • Social bees which include honeybees and bumblebees form a colony and some divide the work of the nest into different jobs.
    • Solitary bees mostly nest in the ground or the cavities of wood.
  • Most of our bees and wasps live in ground nests

Often, wasps are the stinging culprits and bees get blamed. While bees are better as pollinators, wasps also play a role.

Bee City Canada

Try the New York Times Online Quiz to identify whether an insect is a bee – Click HERE

Plant Lists

Grasses: All grasses are wind pollinated. Work on planting a tapestry of native grasses. Chose grasses that are suited to your garden conditions, e.g. sun/shade, dry/wet.

  • Andropogon gerardii (Big Blue Stem, Turkey Foot) & cultivars
    • Andropogon gerardii ‘Blackhawks’ Deep burgundy and green – dark burgundy in fall
    • Andropogon gerardii ‘Dancing Wind’ Purple and green – purple in fall
  • Panicum virgatum “Northwind’ olive-blue – yellow in fall fall
  • Elymus hystrix (Bottle-brush Grass)
  • Schizachyrium scoparium (Little Bluestem)
  • Deschampsia caespitosa (Tufted hair grass)

Further info:

Switch Grass (Panicum virgatum ‘Northwind’), Fall Colour of Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) & Tufted Hair Grass (Deschampsia cespitosa)

Sedges (wind pollinated)

Carex plantaginea (Seersucker Sedge – a beautiful plant for a shady, moist location
  • Carex albicans, part shade to full (medium moisture)
  • Carex crinita, full sun to part shade (moist) Good for a rain garden
  • Carex vulpinoidea, full sun to part shade (moist to wet)
  • Carex pensylvanica, full sun to shade (dry to medium)
  • Carex grisea, sun to shade (medium to wet)
  • Carex eburnea, sun to shade (medium moisture)
  • Carex grayii, part sun to part shade, (moist) Good for a rain garden
  • Carex sprengelii, part sun or shade (moist to wet)
  • Carex bromoides, part sun to shade (moist) 
  • Carex plantaginea, part sun to shade (dry to medium)
Polystihum acrostichoides (Christmas Fern) – often retains its green foliage in colder weather and can withstand dry soil conditions

Ferns (many require moist conditions)

More information on ferns: see Ontario Ferns

Wind Pollinated Trees & Shrubs: Chose native varieties of:

Many trees are wind pollinated, like this White Oak
  • Pines (White pine, Jack,
  • Spruces (Red, Black, White
  • Firs
  • Oaks (White, Black, Red, Bur)
  • Birches (Grey, White,
  • Poplar
  • Hazel
  • Witch hazel, Hamamelis virginiana (Blooms in October November/great fall colour)

Grow wind pollinated veggies

  • Leafy greens, chard, spinach
  • Brassicas: broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and kohlrabi
  • Root veggies and tubers such as carrots, parsnips, potatoes, sweet potatoes, horseradish, beets, turnips, rutabagas
  • Most legumes including peas and beans
  • Corn
  • Celery
  • Onions and leeks

Learn More:


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