Friday, November 27, 2015

Of Honey Bees, Native Bees and Overwintering Your Garden (Brenda Van Ryswyk): Part 1

Brenda Van Ryswyk
Brenda Van Ryswyk is a Conservation Halton, Natural Heritage Ecologist-- natural heritage meaning the world of plants, trees etc in the natural environment that we carry forward.
Plant inventory is Brenda’s original focus but she also works with salamanders, frogs, butterflies and other small creatures.
Brenda grew up in a rural area, south of Ottawa. Her house was surrounded by forest where she was exposed to nature.
"I've always had that love of nature, I've always been curious about it." Brenda took photographs of what she saw, and of course, being curious, she wanted to identify what she saw: "It blossomed from there."

What's the best part of the day, I ask Brenda? "Being outside all summer long. I get to walk all day," she responds.
Any darker parts? "The negative effect that so many people have on nature," she says. Brenda explains that human population is increasing, and while its great that people want to get outside, "sometimes they don’t have a lot of respect for nature. A significant number of people don’t stay on the trails, for instance and they just don’t realize that they may be stepping on rare species.
Brenda worries that too many people are detached from nature--that is they don't have a solid understanding of the connection to and the reliance that humans have on the natural environment. "For many people, there is a lack of personal connection, people don’t see it directly affecting them," Brenda laments.

Honey Bees. 
About honeybees. Not to down play their role, but Brenda says, “If we lost them, (I don’t think we ever will, but theoretically) we would still have pollination from many native pollinators. We have become more reliant on the European Honeybee for pollination simply because of the scale (huge size and monoculture) of our farming practices."

Fact: European Honeybees cannot pollinate tomatoes. Tomatoes are native to North America and are mainly pollinated by bumblebees. Bumblebees do a  special type of pollination called “Buzz-pollination” where they vibrate their body while on the flower and shake the pollen out. Tomatoes have strange flower form so they need this vibrating to shake the pollen out onto the bumblebees body and the bumblebee then pollinates when it moves to the next flower. Bumblebees have been used in greenhouses growing tomatoes for decades for this reason (and were one of the first native pollinators to be “managed” and used in agriculture intentionally).

The thing with European honeybees is that they are good at honey making, but they are not designed to pollinate our North American native plants. Brenda points out that our native bees often do a far better job. For example, the Blue Orchard bee can do the work of ten bees in an apple orchard, pollinating from flower to flower. Just as soon as the snow melts and the flowers start blooming, this bee will come out and start working. 
They can be ‘managed’ by farmers (like the European Honeybees must be) but the native bees are much less maintenance for a farmer, requiring only a little maintenance at certain times of the year. Whereas a European Honeybee colony needs maintenance throughout the entire year.The adult Orchard Bee dies once the flowers have finished blooming, they have laid their eggs and the next generation of larva matures over the summer, overwinter as a pupa in the hollow stem (or tube or whatever cavity/hole) and is ready to emerge in the spring. For those wanting more information visit Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) Managing Alternative Pollinators, a Handbook for Beekeepers, Growers and Conservationists.

Brenda says that pollinators occur naturally throughout the landscape and farms should learn to encourage pollinator habitat on the farm. She offers this example from Norfolk, On where a squash farmer had fallen into the false believe that removing hedgerows to increase “productive” land would increase the farms productivity. While this may be true for some crops it is often the opposite for crops that require pollination. He found instead the farms productivity decreased and he had to start paying for honey bees to be brought on to his farm to perform pollination of his squash crops (which honeybees are not very effective at all!) over the years this became expensive (over $1200).  

The Alternative Land Use Systems (ALUS) program helped provide education and expertise and funding and the hedgerows were replanted onto his farm with the goal of attracting pollinators. The farmer reported that after planting the hedgerows, he was able to stop renting the honeybees for pollination and his crop yield increased by 30% so even though he was farming less acreage he was getting better yields. "This shows that just changing farming practices can be highly beneficial to the local pollinator populations," Brenda says, "and in turn these pollinators can provide a valuable pollination resource to the farm, saving money and increasing production. Farmers can be leaders in conserving our pollinators, and some already are."

Stay tuned for Part 2, Native Bees Need Protection and Overwintering Your Garden, next week.