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We need pollinators!

Thousands of species of plants rely on animals to help them reproduce, by carrying pollen from one flower to another. These animals are known as pollinators, and they are vitally important to natural ecosystems and our agri-food system. We rely on pollinators to produce many essential food crops, as well as favourite luxury items such as coffee and chocolate.

Learn more about how to attract and support pollinators, and what the City is doing.

Monarch butterfly

Pollinators provide essential services to farmers, gardeners, and natural ecosystems. Globally, over 75 per cent of food crops depend on pollination by animals. Locally, our pollinators include hundreds of species of native bees, flies, butterflies and moths, beetles, ants and even some birds, as well as the introduced European honeybee. Many people think of honeybees as the most important pollinators, but native pollinators are very effective and actually provide better quality pollination for some crops. They don’t give us honey as a by-product, however.

News stories about losses of honeybee colonies have prompted concerns among people who want to help save the bees. However, honeybees and other commercially produced species are not at risk of extinction. Wild pollinators are, including the iconic Monarch butterfly and several species of bumblebees. The best ways to save the bees (and other pollinators) are to provide good quality habitat, avoid or reduce pesticide use, and learn more about these fascinating creatures!

  • Plant native wildflowers, including early and late flowering species, to provide nectar sources and other food for pollinators. While many garden vegetables and ornamentals are also good nectar sources, some pollinators rely on the availability of specific native plants to feed their young. Monarch caterpillars need milkweed, for example.
  • Don’t tidy up too soon – many pollinators and other wildlife overwinter in dead plant stems or leaf litter. Leave these habitat features in place for the winter, and delay your spring cleaning until temperatures have risen above 10oC consistently.
  • Leave some areas of bare soil for ground-nesting bees. South-facing sites with well-drained sandy soils are preferred.
  • Many commercially produced bee houses are now being sold online and in stores, but be careful when shopping. Some are poorly designed, with nesting materials that cannot be easily cleaned or replaced after use. Most are too shallow and have minimal roof overhangs that do not provide enough shelter from rain.
  • Become a citizen scientist with iNaturalist, Bumble Bee Watch, Monarch Watch and other online programs! Take photos of the pollinators and other wildlife you find in your garden, or around the City, and submit them online. You will learn more about the wildlife around you, and the sightings you contribute will help researchers learn more about the species’ range and occurrences.

More resources:

Canadian Wildlife Federation – information on pollinators and pollinator-friendly gardening

Pollinator Partnership Canada – information on pollinators, educational materials and resources (including regional planting guides)

Toronto Region Conservation Authority – guide to creating and maintaining pollinator habitat

United States Fish & Wildlife Service – information on pollinators and pollinator-friendly gardening

Wild Pollinator Partners – Ottawa-based group with information about local projects, events, and resources

Urban Beekeeping

Residents who are interested in beekeeping because they want to save the bees or reconnect with nature, should instead consider supporting native bees and other pollinators. This is especially true in urban and suburban neighbourhoods, for the following reasons.

The provincial Bees Act prohibits the placing or keeping of beehives within specific distances of residential properties, public parks or other places of public assembly or recreation, community centres, and roads. The cumulative effect of the Bees Act is essentially to prohibit beekeeping in most urban or suburban contexts.

The City of Ottawa’s Zoning By-law defines the keeping of bees and other livestock as an agricultural use. While gardening is permitted in the urban area, the keeping of bees or other livestock is not.

There are also environmental concerns with urban beekeeping. Research suggests that domestic honeybees compete with native bees and other pollinators, and may also transmit diseases or pests. In urban settings, where suitable pollen and nectar sources are limited, the negative impacts of honeybees on native pollinators may be particularly severe.

How Ottawa supports pollinators

The City of Ottawa recognises the value of pollinators and supports them through many existing policies, programs and practices. Examples include:

  • The proclamation of the first annual Pollinator Appreciation Day on June 7, 2019.
  • The City’s Official Plan includes a suite of policies aimed at preserving Ottawa’s natural heritage system and greenspaces, most of which provide habitat for pollinators. It also includes policies promoting the use of native plant species in landscaping, for both public and private projects, which supports native pollinators and contributes to biodiversity.
  • The Park Development Manual establishes specific targets for naturalisation in new parks, which supports biodiversity and pollinators.
  • The Maintenance Quality Standards for roads, sidewalks, parks and sports fields explicitly recognise the importance of maintaining some areas in a naturalised state to support biodiversity.
  • Use of pesticides on City property is limited, in accordance with provincial legislation (before this legislation took effect, the City had restricted pesticide use through its own corporate policy).
  • To support education and awareness, a Pollinator Garden is being established at Ottawa City Hall using locally sourced native plants, as well as a bee hotel for native bees. This will complement and support the City Hall Community Garden. Several other pollinator gardens have also been established on City-owned land by community groups, with support from ward Councillors and/or municipal grants such as the Community Environmental Projects Grant Program.
  • Community gardens for local food production have been established on City-owned lands and elsewhere in the city through the Community Gardening Network, with the City’s support and assistance; these gardens both rely on and support local pollinator populations.
  • The City’s web page provides residents with information about pollinator-friendly native plants for landscaping, and links to other resources. A pollinator-themed Wildlife Speaker Series event was also held in April 2019.


Making a Bee Hotel

Bee hotels and insect houses provide native bees and other insects with places to lay their eggs, just like birdhouses do for birds. They are not beehives, which are intended for use by colonies of domestic honeybees. The types of native bees that use bee hotels do not produce honey, but they do provide valuable pollination services to our gardens, farms and natural areas. Bee hotels, unlike beehives, are permitted throughout Ottawa’s urban area.

Several bee hotels or insect houses are available commercially, but some of them are not well designed for long-term use by our native pollinators. You can make your own using readily available materials at home. Important design features include:

 Bee hotel made out of milk cartons and rolls of scrap paper
Did you know that you can make great bee hotels out of milk cartons and rolls of scrap paper? This example is at the Fletcher Wildlife Garden.

  • Easy to clean out and / or replace nesting materials, to reduce the risk of diseases or pests that could impact the bees
  • Variety of hole sizes to support several different species (ranging from 2 to 10 mm)
  • Deep enough to support larger species requiring holes up to 15 cm in length
  • At least 5 cm roof overhang to protect the nesting materials from rain
  • Not too large; many native bees are solitary or live in small colonies, and prefer not to be crowded
  • Sturdy mount or base
  • Good sun exposure (southfacing is best)

This bee hotel, located in the Ottawa City Hall Pollinator Garden
This bee hotel, located in the Ottawa City Hall Pollinator Garden, was made out of pine lumber and yard waste (dead plant stems and branch trimmings). The photos below show how it was made, step by step.

Other resources:

Wild Pollinator Partners

Espace pour la vie

Let’s Talk Science

La Maison du 21e siècle (in French only)

The Old Farmer’s Almanac

Habitat Network

Bee Hotel materials
We used a 1x8 pine board for the roof and back, 1x6 pine boards for the sides and dividers, and a 4x4 pine post, cut to 15 cm lengths (not shown here). We found the post in the scrap lumber bin at the hardware store, and bought the boards. Total cost for materials: under $5. Power tools (circular saw, drill) make this project a lot easier. If you don’t have your own, you may be able to borrow them from a neighbour or a local tool library, or rent them.

A basic wooden box to hold the nesting materials..

A basic wooden box to hold the nesting materials.
We built a basic wooden box to hold the nesting materials. The exact size and shape don’t matter to the bees, as long as there is a solid back and an overhanging roof.

Divide the box into smaller compartments
We used some of the 1x6 boards to divide the box into smaller compartments. This is optional.

Drill a variety of different sized holes into each of the four wood blocks
We drilled a variety of different sized holes into each of the four wood blocks that we had cut from the 4x4 post, leaving some space between each hole. The larger holes are close to 15 cm deep. Remove any splinters around the holes that might snag the bees’ wings.

Place a wooden block in each compartment of the box

 Fill in the remaining space with lengths of hollow plant stems and twigs.
We placed a wooden block in each compartment of the box and then filled in the remaining space with lengths of hollow plant stems and twigs. The stems came from last year’s garden plants, while the twigs were from branches that needed pruning. Mount the bee hotel in a sunny location, at least 1 m off the ground. It needs to be solidly mounted so that it does not sway in the breeze.

City Hall bee hotel
The bee hotel should be kept in a shed or garage over the winter, safe from predators and moisture. In spring, carefully remove the used nesting materials from the hotel and place them in a cardboard box or other opaque container, with a small opening to allow the young bees to emerge. Put the box outside in a sheltered location and refill the hotel with new nesting material for the next generation to use. This reduces the risk of mold, diseases or pests infesting the hotel and impacting the bees.