In April 2018, city council passed a motion that, ironically, generated almost no buzz: the declaration of Toronto’s Official Bee.
The metallic green sweat bee — Agapostemon virescent is the species name — was chosen for three reasons. One, it’s abundant: of the more than 360 wild bee species that inhabit Toronto, this one is fairly common. Two, it’s hard to miss: it looks like it’s all zhuzhed up to hit the bee version of Studio 54, or maybe the Brunswick House before it became a Rexall. And three, it lives in a condo.
Females of this species create communal nests in the ground. The nest has a common entrance, but each bee gets its own unit. One female guards the entrance at a time, its iridescent head poking out of the burrow. Uncommonly for wild bees, which typically aggressively defend their nests, the guard bee lets other stranger bees, its neighbours, into the entrance. For its welcoming attitude — and its condo lifestyle — Agapostemon virescent was deemed worthy of Official Bee status.
The motion was adopted along with a citywide pollinator protection strategy. Next month, council will vote on Toronto’s first-ever biodiversity strategy. In a way, this metallic green sweat bee can be seen as a mascot for a broader movement: the recognition that cities can and must play a role in protecting biological diversity and fighting climate change, the world’s two conjoined environmental crises.
Urban areas “are often thought of as landscapes of regret, because they are so developed, and there is so little intact habitat or anything coming close to intact habitat. But I really see these as landscapes of opportunity for conservation — but it has to be conservation done differently,” says Faisal Moola, a professor in the department of Geography, Environment and Geomatics at the University of Guelph.
Usually, when people think about protecting nature, they envision remote swaths of intact forest. Those areas are still important, Moola and other experts say. But increasingly, scientists and policy-makers are focusing on not only protecting what remains of nature but also restoring degraded and destroyed landscapes, including densely urbanized areas like the GTA.
In March, the United Nations General Assembly declared 2021-2030 to be the Decade of Ecosystem Restoration, “a proven measure to fight the climate crisis and enhance food security, water supply and biodiversity.”
Other experts say that Canada and other countries will never be able to reach their conservation goals without addressing urban ecology. Canada made an international commitment to protect and conserve 17 per cent of its land by the end of 2020; we are currently at 12 per cent. The pledge also included targets related to at-risk species, addressing biodiversity in urban planning, and actively engaging Canadians in the stewardship of nature.
Urbanization contributes to forest degradation and other land use changes. In Canada, a disproportionate number of endangered species are clustered at the southern border, near and in cities.
And perhaps most importantly, 83 per cent of Canadians live in cities.
“We’ve learned over the past couple of years that the way to significantly shift paradigms is to get right back down to people’s home place, the neighbourhoods they chose to live in,” says Pete Ewins, lead specialist, species conservation, World Wildlife Fund Canada.
“The restoration, much more than the protection part,” involves “essentially reigniting and informing and motivating urban people. Because they’re the majority.”
When Toronto adopted its pollinator protection strategy 18 months ago, it became one of the first municipalities in Canada with an explicit plan to address the health of the region’s bees, butterflies, and other movers-of-pollen.
The city is home to approximately 364 species of wild, native bees. For millennia, they co-evolved with the local vegetation, foraging on flowering plants and nesting in soil, logs, and even hollow bramble canes. We also have one species of managed bee, the European Honey Bee, which was brought to North America by settlers 400 years ago. The European Honey Bee is important for agriculture, but it is a domesticated insect with a different set of stressors than wild bees: it lives in man-made hives, and is actively managed by humans.
Wild bees are deeply troubled. Researchers have shown that dozens of Canada’s native bumblebee species have suffered from the shrinking of their geographic ranges, caused by impacts like climate change and alterations in land use, including urbanization.
“The pollinator protection strategy recognizes that pollinators are obviously an important part of biodiversity in our city, and the service of pollination they provide is crucial,” says Annemarie Baynton, program manager.
“So the foundation of the pollinator protection strategy is really about creating habitat where we can — on city-owned land and on private land. We’re really taking the approach that the more habitat we can provide, the better.”
The strategy provided funding for PollinateTO Community Grants, which offered up to $5,000 for applicants to create neighbourhood pollinator habitat gardens.
The city was swamped with enthusiasm: There were over 500 applications; 37 were approved. Another program through Live Green Toronto provided free native plant kits at city councillors’ Community Environment Days. Registration for a kit opened in April; they sold out in one month, says Baynton.
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Clement Kent, a bee researcher at York University and a member of the city’s pollinator advisory group, understands the overwhelming response.
“This isn’t a story of global disaster. There is certainly an emergency going on, but there’s stuff everybody can do, and a lot of it is fun and interesting. So why not? Focus on the positive — what can you do?”
Kent’s own backyard near College St. and Dovercourt Rd. is a testament to ecological gardening. Kent, a co-founder of the Parkdale Horticultural Society and a master gardener, originally planted his yard with the same ornamental exotics that most people like: lilies, anemones, and lilacs. Gardeners love them precisely because they aren’t part of the local food web: insects and birds don’t prey on them. That’s great for esthetics, but terrible for supporting biodiversity.
As his own work showed him the importance of native plant species to wild pollinator health, he has slowly been replacing the exotics with flowers like yellow giant hyssop, a favourite of bees and butterflies, milkweed, which monarchs rely on, and shrubs like the northern spicebush, forage for a specific species of giant butterfly. He even created a mini bog, by digging a channel from his small, native-iris-filled pond, packing it with sphagnum moss and other materials that create an acidic environment, and running his garage downspout to the spot.
Kent has the type of large backyard many homeowners and renters can only dream of. But he urges that “anyone with access to a bit of light and a pot can do something.”
The impact of initiatives like this on the health of pollinator populations or other plant and animal life is not fully known. When the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published a major report on land and climate change, it avoided a detailed exploration of urban ecosystem dynamics, calling the relation between urban and land processes “extensive, dynamic and complex.”
“As scientists, we have a very poor understanding of the biodiversity benefits of this type of planning, in part because we don’t have a really good sense of what the baseline of biodiversity is right now in our cities and the extent to which that biodiversity is in decline,” says University of Guelph’s Moola.
Toronto also benefits from its extensive, 11,000-hectare ravine system, the largest of any city in the world.
Eric Davies, a PhD candidate in the University of Toronto Faculty of Forestry who studies Toronto’s ravines, likes to highlight a figure: Canada has pledged to protect 17 per cent of its land by 2020. Ravines cover 17 per cent of Toronto’s land area.
But they are in trouble, he says.
“Their health is just so poor, and there’s so much work to do,” says Davies. “When that’s what you do for a profession, it’s like finding a beautiful old muscle car: You can visualize what it’s like when it’s running, you know what they sound like and you know what they smell like,” he says.
Toronto’s ravines are beset by non-native and invasive species. Norway maples, which are widespread, are a particular concern. Not only do they provide little to no benefit to native animal species, their root systems out-compete native plants and their leaf litter is toxic.
The city has a ravine strategy and has undertaken restoration initiatives. Davies says much more is needed.
“Having a healthy ravine system across 17 per cent of the city would be game-changing, and I think it’s possible,” he says. “But it would need to employ modern scientific frameworks, be supported by big funding, and generate a civic interest as passionate as the quest for the Stanley Cup. Otherwise, it could incur irreparable damage in the coming years, and be cost prohibitive to restore in many places.”
Toronto’s first-ever biodiversity strategy will come before city council in early October. Among other things, it recognizes that not only do cities play an important role in protecting biodiversity, but that biodiversity plays an important role in the city. A healthy urban forest improves air quality, decreases flooding risk and boosts quality of life.
“It’s about making the city livable. What makes a city attractive? Why would you want to move here, why would you want to be an employer setting up your business here? Part of the answer is connection to nature,” says Jane Welsh, Project Manager, Environmental Planning, City Planning, City of Toronto. “A livable city is usually a very green city. It’s very diverse in people, and diverse in its landscapes.”