The A-Bee-Cs of Building Pollinator-Friendly Cities

by Breanne Bateman

The plight of the honey bee has garnered significant media attention in recent years. Declining bee health, economic losses experienced by bee keepers, and the recent discovery of the impact of insecticides on honey bee populations have alarmed scientists and citizens worldwide. However, the focus on honey bees has obscured the decline of native bees, which is of even greater ecological concern. In order to address this issue, Toronto’s City Council recently passed the Toronto Pollinator Protection Strategy, which outlines a set of guidelines and actions to support and protect urban pollinator biodiversity in Toronto.

Bees in Ontario

The European honey bee is a domesticated species of bee that was introduced to North America for honey production. Native bees, by comparison, are species that occur naturally in North America, with 360 distinct species residing in Toronto alone. Many do not sting, do not produce honey, nest underground, live either singularly or in colonies, and flourish in diverse natural environments. Unfortunately, many native bee species in Toronto are at risk due to loss of habitat, competition from introduced and invasive species, disease, and insecticide use. Many of Toronto’s native bee species are in decline, and both the rusty-patched bumble bee and the gypsy cuckoo bumble bee are endangered species.

Economic Impact

Plants rely on pollination – the transfer of pollen to plants of the opposite sex – for reproduction. Approximately 80% of plants rely on this, and bees are the most effective pollinators. Major crops, such as avocados, almonds, and coffee, depend on bee pollination. Alfalfa, which is a major component of livestock feed, also requires pollination by bees. In Ontario, the agricultural industry relies on bees to pollinate crops such as berries, apples, tomatoes, onions, and more. Without bees, there would therefore be less variety in the produce section, and fewer – or more expensive – meat, dairy, and coffee products. Native bees, like the bumble bee, pollinate the majority of greenhouse crops in Ontario. Commercially raised bumble bees are estimated to contribute approximately $502 million to Ontario’s economy each year.

Photo Credit: Whole Foods Market Inc.

Environmental Impact

The City of Toronto is part of the second most biodiverse region in Canada. The Lake Erie Lowlands ecosystem stretches from Windsor to Toronto, an area subject to rapid urbanization and population growth. Native bees require a high-quality habitat to thrive, including areas with plants suitable for foraging, reproduction, and nesting. Many species have developed symbiotic relationships with native plants, wherein certain plants can only be pollinated by specific bee species. As such, bees are important not only for agriculture, but also the health and biodiversity of our unique ecosystem.


The native bee population decline can be attributed to two primary stressors: insecticide use and habitat loss. Insecticides such as neonicotinoids have been singled out for their unintended impact on bee populations. Neonicotinoid insecticides have been used in Ontario since the mid-1990s, and are still commonly used as a seed treatment. However, a growing body of scientific evidence suggests that neonicotinoids are highly toxic to bees rendering them more susceptible to disease, disrupting their natural foraging behaviours, and negatively affecting reproduction. Rapid urbanization has also contributed to the decline of bee populations, as urban landscapes tend to destroy and limit the bees’ natural food supply.

Current Policies

In 2005, Ontario became the first jurisdiction in North America to restrict neonicotinid insecticides. As well, the Government of Canada recently announced that neonicotinoid insecticides will be phased out beginning in 2021. In addition to regulatory action, the province and the City of Toronto have taken additional steps to address habitat concerns. In 2016, Toronto City Council requested a joint inquiry to report on options for conserving native bee populations. This inquiry resulted in the Pollinator Protection Strategy, which was unanimously adopted in April. Toronto’s strategy outlines pollinator-friendly practices to support habitat recovery. Actions include planting native trees, shrubs, and flowers in parks and city-owned properties to encourage pollinator recovery.

The City of Toronto has also taken more direct action by proposing re-connecting green spaces to create “pollinator corridors” that allow pollinators to easily move through the city. This proposed action involves identifying areas where small-scale plantings could connect otherwise separate green areas. The City has already enjoyed success with this idea, as evident by environmental initiatives such as Scarborough Centre Butterfly Trail and the Meadoway. These two projects saw otherwise unutilized hydro corridors transformed into meadows and urban parks.

Photo Credit: TRCA

The strategy also promotes public sector, private sector and citizen engagement in conserving pollinator habitat. For example, the City is partnering with local school boards with the goal of every school creating a pollinator garden. City Council also established incentives for community action through the Pollinator Stewardship Incentive Program, which provides financial support for community-led initiatives. The Pollinator Protection Strategy serves multiple purposes by encouraging alternative transit and urban farming, combatting climate change, and protecting Toronto’s unique biodiversity. It is also part of a larger movement influencing the future of our cities. Urban policies that promote sustainability and green growth create built and natural environments that suit the needs of all residents  – even the humble bee.

Breanne Bateman holds a B.A. (Hons.) in History and English from Wilfrid Laurier University. Now in her second year of the Munk School’s Master of Public Policy program, she recently completed an internship at the City of Mississauga, in the Transportation and Infrastructure Planning Division. Breanne’s policy interests include environmental policy and sustainability, particularly water and food policy.