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How you can help Atlantic Canada's bees and butterflies

A great spangled butterfly rests on a coneflower.
A great spangled butterfly rests on a coneflower. - SaltWire Network

The idea of building a bug-friendly garden does not sound overly appealing at first, but when you stop to consider how insects are critical for the circle of life, you may think twice.

Insects - like bees, butterflies and moths - are important pollinators, transferring pollen grains from male to female flowers, helping plants grow, breed and potentially produce food.

Insect larvae are important food source for songbirds, and they are important indicators of environmental and ecosystem health, says backyard gardener and butterfly enthusiast Devin Johnstone from Kentville, N.S.

Unfortunately, research points to population declines in many species, so these insects can certainly use help, he says. Insect-friendly gardens help compensate for human-caused factors, like pollution, pesticide use and habitat loss.

A red admiral butterfly sits on a butterfly bush.
A red admiral butterfly sits on a butterfly bush.

Rachael McLean, a landscape architect in Lovat, N.S.., says when designing a garden, gardeners should look at pollinators as a whole, rather than designing for just one insect in particular. It’s important to select plants with flowers and consider mass plantings, she says, so insects have less distance to travel to find their next source.

It’s also important to plant a variety of different plants, as insects like butterflies need different plants as food sources. Include native species in your gardens and don’t use insecticides, including on your lawn. McLean also suggests having a shallow source of water for them to drink.

Bruce MacNaughton, owner of the Prince Edward Island Preserve Company in New Glasgow, P.E.I., knows first-hand how butterflies are good for plants. Located on site within the Gardens of Hope is a greenhouse that is home to imported tropical butterflies from Costa Rica.

“Butterflies are great pollinators,” he says. “We should do what we can to attract and protect them.”

To attract butterflies in particular, Johnstone says it’s important to try to have something in bloom in your garden throughout the entire season.

“I’ve observed (butterflies) as early as late March, with snow still around, and other species I’ve seen well into November, so having flowers throughout the season offers a readily available food source,” he says.

What to plant

Some butterfly-friendly plants include cone flower (echinacea), mint, lupine, milkweed, bee balm, lilac, aster, black-eyed Susan (rudbeckia) or easily-maintained flowering shrubs like spiraea, hydrangea, and butterfly bush. Tags on plants at garden centres should indicate if they attract butterflies.

Native plants are best and will not invade your garden, says Nicole Hubley, the monarch butterfly project coordinator at the Mersey Tobeatic Research Institute (MRTI) in Queens County, N.S. Some great examples are boneset, joe pyeweed, yarrow, goldenrod, asters and daisies, clover, native sunflowers and Queen Anne's lace.

An American Lady butterfly settled on aster to feed.
An American Lady butterfly settled on aster to feed.

For those who would like a butterfly garden made easy, the MTRI has developed a butterfly kit to help people learn about and support monarchs. The kit comes with information about these butterflies as well as ideas of how to create a butterfly garden along with swamp milkweed seeds, and other materials, says Hubley.

These kits are available for $10 though merseytobeatic.ca, with funds going directly to the monarch program, assisting the public in creating sustainable habitat for species at risk, with a main focus on monarch butterflies.

A painted lady butterfly sits on a coneflower.
A painted lady butterfly sits on a coneflower.

Save the bees

When it comes to attracting bees, Heather Crouse, who operates Wood ‘n’ Hives honey farm with her husband Alex in Port Williams, N.S., says certain plants and colours of flowers are more attractive and better for bees. Bees can best see blue, yellow, purple and red flowers, she says.

A natural lawn and habitat are key to helping bees. An important first source of early nectar and pollen for bees, says Crouse, is dandelions. She stresses the importance of not spraying or mowing them until after they bloom.

“Wildflowers are wonderful sources and most of our honey comes from daisies, clover, trees, golden rod,” says Crouse.

Crouse says there are literally thousands of different kinds of bees, and not all are attracted to the same flowers. For example, bumblebees are attracted to rhododendrons, but honeybees are not.

The biggest thing, says Crouse, is to reduce or eliminate spraying of any kind if possible if there are bees in the area.

Heather and Alex Crouse operate Wood ‘n’ Hive bee farm in Port Williams, N.S. They stress the importance of not using insecticides if bees are in the area and not mowing your lawn until the first dandelions have finished blooming. This gives bees a chance at the first early nectar from these flowers. Their granddaughter Ella Crouse helps with beekeeping duties.
Heather and Alex Crouse operate Wood ‘n’ Hive bee farm in Port Williams, N.S. They stress the importance of not using insecticides if bees are in the area and not mowing your lawn until the first dandelions have finished blooming. This gives bees a chance at the first early nectar from these flowers. Their granddaughter Ella Crouse helps with beekeeping duties.

If the idea is to repel certain insects, like mosquitoes, McLean suggests planting lavender, citronella, mint, different basils and garlic, as the odour repels them. Although it helps, McLean says not to fully rely on the plants working.

“I live in rural Nova Scotia and there is no plant out there that can save you from the swarms of mosquitoes!” she says.

Todd Smith, professor in the biology department at Acadia University in Wolfville, N.S., says there are steps that can be taken to help prevent mosquitoes. Remove all sources of standing water near your house, change water in bird baths - or better yet, do not put out bird baths out at all as they can be sources of parasites for birds - and encourage insect eating-birds like swallows and bats by building and installing houses for them.

Homes for insects

There are some popular accessories that people like to add to their backyards to make them more insect-friendly. The first is a bee box, or bee hotel, which are man-made structures intended to entice bees to nest inside the tubes.

Barry Hicks, who has a doctorate in entomology, is a biology instructor at the College of the North Atlantic in Carbonear, N.L. He says these bee hotels are meant for species of solitary bees - like leaf cutter and mason bees and not honey or bumble bees - where each female bee lays eggs and creates a nest.

For these bee boxes to be successful, he says they must have a certain hole diameter, length and density. Instructions can be found online for anyone wishing to build one. Most entomologists, he says, are not convinced that they work, however.

“I tell people to go ahead and see if they get anything, but they mainly don’t get anything because the type of bees that would use them are not that abundant here in Newfoundland,” he says.

Bug hotels like these are popular throughout England as a means of encouraging beneficial insects to take up residence, helping to encourage biodiversity in the garden. Many scientists are unsure if they actually help a garden, but regardless are an interesting feature for the backyard.
Bug hotels like these are popular throughout England as a means of encouraging beneficial insects to take up residence, helping to encourage biodiversity in the garden. Many scientists are unsure if they actually help a garden, but regardless are an interesting feature for the backyard.

The main issue that entomologists have with the hotels are that they concentrate the bees in one area and that allows their parasites to find them easily, adds Hicks.

“Just like a disease is passed around in other animals when they are crowded, bee diseases can spread more easily in the hotels,” he adds.

That’s also an issue when it comes to creating another popular backyard feature, the bug hotel. Similar to a bee hotel, this homemade structure provides shelter and encourages insects to stay. Hicks says he is also skeptical whether these structures do what is intended.

Smith agrees, saying that, although these structures may be popular in places like England, here in Nova Scotia, there is a high diversity of wasp species and one should be vigilant about the whole thing turning into a massive wasp nest, unless that is what you want because wasps eat a huge number of moth caterpillars, he says.

And if you do find a swarm of bees you would like removed, call a beekeeper, say Crouse. They will most likely come to collect them from you, as they love free bees.

Choosing butterfly-friendly plants, such as sea holly, will make gardens more attractive to butterflies like this red admiral.
Choosing butterfly-friendly plants, such as sea holly, will make gardens more attractive to butterflies like this red admiral.

Are murder hornets a threat for Atlantic Canada?

According to Dr. Barry Hicks, a biology instructor at the College of the North Atlantic in Carbonear, N.L., murder hornets – otherwise known as the Giant Asian Hornet or Vespa mandarinia - are the latest craze in popular literature.

These insects have been found in British Columbia and Washington State and they do attack honeybee hives to steal their larvae and honey, killing the adults in the process.

The chances of them getting to Newfoundland and becoming established is slim to none, says Hicks.

“In fact, we are more concerned that Vespa cabro, the European Hornet, will become established here in the future,” he says. “These insects can do a lot of damage to trees and shrubs because they strip the bark to get to the sap.”

They are also capable of stinging multiple times, he says.

Hicks says there are lots of other entomological issues that people should be more worry about, like habitat loss and bee diseases.

The Asian giant hornet can grow in excess of two inches in size, deliver a painful sting and devastate honeybee colonies.  - Contributed
The Asian giant hornet can grow in excess of two inches in size, deliver a painful sting and devastate honeybee colonies. - Contributed

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