Pollinators have modest needs.
-Flowers, of the kind that grow willingly everywhere and produce nectar and pollen profusely. We mostly call them weeds and try to get rid of them. Nectar is food for butterflies, moths, bees, wasps and many other insects. Butterflies and moths don't eat pollen, although they play a role in pollination by moving it around. For bees, however, the high-protein pollen is an important food for their larvae.
-Foliage, for the larvae (caterpillars) of moths and butterflies, of a kind that the caterpillars of this moth or that butterfly have feasted on for generations. Because plant and insect evolved together, the insect’s larvae are able to overcome the toxic chemicals that its specific plant produces to protect itself. Think monarch butterfly and milkweed (but note that a monarch consumes nectar from any accessible flower). Gardeners generally have no idea what plants play host to and make good nurseries for what specific insects – but a native plant is a safe bet.
-Nesting spots – a sunny patch of bare soil warmed by the sun, the hollow stems of overwintering perennials, an old piece of wood that can be tunnelled into. We pave pathways and mulch beds, thus barring ground-nesting bees from access to the ground and we tidy up old stems and deadwood, leaving nowhere for insects like carpenter and leafcutter bees.
-Chemical-free food. We dust and spray our countryside with toxins that make their way into the pollen, nectar and foliage beneficial insects consume, even wildflowers'. These toxins can also migrate into soil and water. And many of the garden plants we hope will help our pollinators have been sprayed in the nursery and can be harmful.
-Accessible food. Cultivars that have been bred to produce flowers that delight us with their size, plenitude of petals or stunning colours have often lost the traits that make them appealing to pollinators – lots of pollen and nectar, and ease of access to the nectary.
Consider our agricultural landscape from a bee's point of view: Hedgerows that once were rich in blossoms have long been eliminated to give the tractor free rein. No wildflowers grow among the crops. The ditches offer some floral solace, but there danger threatens with phragmites, an invasive species that’s beginning to creep along the concession roads, crowding out insect-friendly vegetation and offering our insects neither food nor shelter.
For all the good it does a bee, much of the countryside might as well be paved over.
In fact, it turns out that the city is a more benign place for bees, because there, gardeners grow without using pesticides, and if wildflowers spring up in pockets of wasteland and other neglected areas they are usually left to grow. Here’s what the Ontario Beekeepers’ Association said in a recent submission to the provincial government on the Ontario Pollinator Action Plan: As it stands today, urban and non-corn and -soy cropland are probably the safest places for bees in Ontario. Because of Ontario’s ban on cosmetic pesticides, Ontario cities are relatively safe havens for bees and other pollinators.
How tragic that our countryside has been so transformed that it can no longer offer food and shelter for the creatures that are at the base of the food chain of which we are a part. Read this OBA Pollinator Action Plan Response
for a fuller picture of what’s going on.
Still, all is not lost and we can mend our ways. I recently gave a presentation to the Pursuits Club in Midland, based on photographs taken by members of the Tiny Marsh bio-inventory group, around the wetland and in their own gardens. I think my audience was intrigued and surprised by the variety and beauty of insects that can be found all around us. Our local pollinators include bees, wasps, syrphid flies (also known as hover or flower flies, they often cleverly camouflage themselves as bees and wasps), butterflies, moths, hummingbirds, beetles and bugs.
For most people, a bee means a honey bee. Here in North America, the honey bee (Apis mellifera) is an invasive alien, bought over from Europe and now spread all over the continent, competing for floral resources with thousands of species of native bees. But if the landscape was managed to be honey-bee friendly, with large quantities of nectar-producing flowers, I suspect all bees would benefit and find their niche. We humans like the honey bee because – unlike the solitary bees which make up most of the 400 native bees in our part of the world – its sociable nature means it can be managed to make money for us. Initially, by producing a surplus of honey. More recently, this little creature has been able to produce even greater profits by being trucked vast distances to pollinate a succession of crops. The stress on the bees from being subjected to this routine is thought to be just one of the factors in Colony Collapse Disorder which has been observed in the States and to a lesser extent in Canada.
But honey bees aren’t the only ones we have pressed into service. There are many crops that the honey bee isn’t very good at pollinating, for instance, blueberries, which need ‘buzz’ pollination. This involves the bee vibrating its wings to produce a sound of exactly the right frequency, resulting in the blueberry flower’s releasing pollen that’s held tightly inside hollow anthers. It turns out that the tomato flower similarly releases far more pollen if buzzed and increased pollination leads to more and larger fruit. Result: bumble bees are now managed commercially. This can happen because they are a social bee, nesting in colonies, although in much smaller populations than the honey bees, and their communal structure is much simpler. Boxes of bumble bees can be purchased and placed strategically in greenhouses. This would all be well and good. But in the 1990s, when North American bumble bees were being tested in Europe, some became infected with European diseases and were transported back here. The diseases have now escaped into native bumble bee populations that have no resistance to them, resulting in the virtual disappearance of the once-common Rusty-patched bumble bee (Bombus affinis), and the precipitous decline of the also extremely common Yellow-banded bumble bee.
Wouldn’t you think we would have learned by now not to introduce infections into our wildlife populations?
The good news is that farmers and agricultural experts are learning the value of providing habitat for native solitary bees (called solitary because each female works alone to build and provision a nest just for her own larvae). One example of how useful wild bees can be comes from Costa Rica. Coffee is wind-pollinated, but a study compared coffee fields that were close to bee habitat in forest patches to those far away, and found the extra pollination provided by wild bees boosted coffee yields by anything from 15 to 50 per cent in the fields adjacent to forest. Interestingly, the Costa Rican government supports landowners who leave forest on their land – giving them $42 an acre, which according to melittologist Laurence Packer, whose book I got this information from, is one tenth of the value the forests gave to the coffee farms. In a similar vein, last year the United States Department of Agriculture announced funding to help farmers in six mid-western states work on bee-friendly conservation improvements to their land with the aim of improving yields.
Three quarters of our diet is wind-pollinated, but as the Costa Rican study showed, pollinators add value. And the quarter of our diet that we do owe to bees and other insects is the healthy and delicious portion - all the fruit and many vegetables, many spices. But we're not the only species to be threatened if pollinators disappear. This is about an essential link in the foodchain. Songbirds, for instance, even normally seed-eating birds, depend on caterpillars, other insect larvae and insects for the high-protein diet that's essential for nestlings to fledge. See this Pollinator Resource Sheet,
at the end there's an analysis of how many caterpillars it takes to raise a chickadee brood. Amazing!
What can we all do to help bees and other pollinators?
- Safeguard nesting sites like sunny patches of bare soil, dead and rotting wood, brush piles, pithy and hollow stems. This means that, much as mulching is really good for your soil, don’t mulch everything! Leave a warm spot for bee babies to grow, and don't dig it over in the fall. And either leave perennial stems in place, or clip them and let them winter outside somewhere protected from the weather. Hundreds of thousands of solitary bees are killed each fall when pithy raspberry canes are cut and burned or trashed.
- Don’t use pesticides and check that the plants you buy have not been sprayed.
- Plant native plants and nectar-producing plants with lots of little florets.
- Provide water in a shallow basin filled with stones so the insects can land and drink without drowning. Replace water daily.
- Buy local honey – honey bees forage in the same places as wild bees, measures that protect one will help the others. We need beekeepers as advocates but with their prices are drastically undercut by imports, the occupation becomes ever more precarious.
- Let the government know you care, through your MP (the feds are the main pesticide regulators) and MPP (Ontario is working on a pollinator action plan). I personally favour ending the use of neo-nicotinoids and other systemic pesticides and I’m a big fan of the David Suzuki Foundation’s suggestion that pollinator-friendly habitat be established on all roadsides, railways, hydro and infrastructure corridors in the province.