Bees, Pollinators and Pesticides: An Update From York University's Symposium on Impacts of Systemic pesticides
This piece was published in April, 2016 on our blog.
"The only acceptable dose of these systemic pesticides is just nothing. Zero." Dr. Jean-Marc Bonmartin, Deputy Chairman TFSP.
The Pollinators' Paradise team headed out to York University to attend the Symposium on Impacts of and alternatives to Systemic pesticides: A Science Policy Forum (April 19).
Minister of the Environment and Climate Change, the Honourable Glen Murray launched the day's lecture series. Murray stressed that Ontario government is currently taking "most aggressive action" towards climate change, pointing to two "transformative bills"; the Great Lakes Protection Act and the Low Carbon Economy Act. He talked about Ontario's efforts towards getting to 1.5 degrees Celsius and the work begun to get Ontario to zero waste. Minister Murray talked about how 80% of our food comes from California where there is a severe drought. Making the connection between climate change and water: "Lake Superior has 20% of the world's fresh water but is one of the fastest warming bodies of water," Minister Murray said. "The health of our eco-system is interrelated with food production: "We're growing food in a different climate."
Following this address, Dr. Laurence Packer (York University) took the floor to help us understand popular misconceptions about bees. Blame it on the domesticated honey bee--that's the reason for the confusion. Not many of us know that bees don't make honey, or at least the vast majority of bees don't. That's right. Packer says he likes honey, but isn't it interesting that most of the research dollars to study bee health go to this fraction of the bee population. Discrimination much?
But there is a great diversity of bees. There are over 20,000 described bee species in the world. Ontario has over 300 of these native bees. But they get no credit for the work they do pollinating in fields and such. And yet, greater diversity of wild bee pollinators increases crop yield.
Other misconceptions about bees (once you've properly identified them!): bees are mostly solitary. Most of them are ground nesting, (250 nests per square metres), most are not hardworking (some are cuckoo bees) and more than half of all individual bees can not sting!
What do native bees need to thrive?
Well drained soils (oak savannah/prairie), "no pesticides zone," diversity of habitat (adding wildflower mixes increased bee abundance and diversity.) We need to maintain hot spot habitats. Packer pointed out that wild bees need places where honey bees are excluded (Watch for a post on this!). Minimize beekeeping: "Wild bee abundance and diversity increase with distance from apiaries," Packer said. Southfacing rockery is good.
What can we do in the city? Packer suggests minimizing mulching because bare patches of soil are good for the bees, plantbee-friendlyy flowers (or plants like raspberries. Additional bonus: bees nest in the dead raspberry canes). "Thousands and thousands of bees are being composted. Leave the dead stems alone!" Packer pleads."Spectacularly beautiful," the second edition of Packer's Bees of Toronto: A Guide to their Remarkable World (second edition) is forthcoming.
Ragweed versus Goldenrod
This short piece was published on our former blog in 2015.
"In Finland, you have to pay good money for goldenrod," says Dr. Jim Quinn, biology professor at McMaster University. People need to understand tht golden rod is not the cause of your allergies. Ragweed is likely the culprit.
"So why the confusion?" I ask Quinn.
This piece appeared in thespec.com on May 25th, June 2016 as There's more to Bees than just Honey.
Honey — I could take it or leave it. But many of us love the sweet taste of that sticky mess honeybees make from the nectar they gather from flowers. And now that bees and other pollinators are on the decline, efforts across the world are stepping up to do something about it.
It's not just that we won't have honey anymore if we lose the honeybees; the concern is also that we will lose pollination — a far more serious issue, as it affects food production.
But here's the thing: if we lost our honeybees today, we would still have pollination.
In Ontario alone, there are over 400 species of wild bees — and surprise! They are pollinators too!
"Typically all agricultural pollination that involves bees assumes that it is done by honeybees," laments bee expert, Dr. Laurence Packer (Professor of Biology at York University). "In Britain, that is not the case because there are not enough hives to account for production."
While in North America, the fields are much larger, "We actually don't know how much other pollinators contribute to production." But because the livelihood of beekeepers depends on the honeybee, if colonies die off, it's a problem.
Here's the thing — according to Packer, honeybees are good at pollinating due to their sheer numbers. "Take 10,000 foraging bees. The overall effect is going to be positive even if they are each doing a bad job on a per visit basis. Individually, they are less effective than a lot of other pollinators/bees."
This was posted on our blog in September, 2015.
Susan Chan is coming back to town for Disappearing Act: part 2! Pollination biologist and practicing agriculturalist, I caught up with Susan, before her talk on Oct 27th.
What comes first for Susan, pollinators or growing food locally?
“The two are intrinsically intertwined,” she replies. Susan is interested in food for humans, but also food for everyone else—that is, for all creatures and plant reproduction, since plants are the first layer of our food chain.
A self-proclaimed “whole system thinker,” Susan believes that the healthier the whole system is, the more resilient we are as communities. “The way to be more resilient is to have a whole bunch of players in the field,” she says.
About twenty-five years ago, Susan became interested in the honeybee while studying with Peter Kevan (University of Guelph). She describes Peter as being “ahead of his time.” He pointed out that we couldn’t have food production predicated on one pollinator—the honeybee, which is not even native to this country. He pushed the Ministry of Agriculture to do more for native bees.
This opened up a whole new interest for Susan: solitary bees and pollinators. One particular bee caught Susan’s attention—the squash bee (now her area of expertise). The squash (and pumpkin) bee is a specialist bee at particular risk from neonicotinoids.
"Why the draw," I ask Susan?
“I fell in love with it. It’s a very gentle, beautiful bee, with a very interesting life. I feel like I didn’t have any choice; this is what I had to do. It chose me.”
“Bees are a poster child but they are representing a bigger size of the pie, this is an insecticide that kills all insects,” Susan points out.
I ask whether she is working with the Aboriginal/First Nations community in any capacity. Susan tells me that in fact, the squash bee is a “First Nations’ bee,” belonging to Indigenous culture, and originating in Central America thousands of years ago. It followed their activities and cultivation to Canada: “It’s an immigrant, like the rest of us.”
"Susan reports that she had the opportunity to speak to a group of First Nations people (Association of Iroquois and Allied Indians, AIAI) in partnership with Farms at Work for the Kanienkeha:ka (Mohawk) Flint Corn Seed-Saving & Education Project and is keen for their support in seeing the squash bee established at permanent nesting sites. “It could be a First Nations’ symbol,” Susan muses."
This article was published in The Point, in the Aug/Sept issue 2016.
Dandelions poking out here and there on the neighbour's property? Wildflowers and milkweed shamelessly facing the street? Keep calm; it's a sign of the times. The reign of the manicured lawn is over; the rise of the nature-friendly front yard is upon us.
What was once considered unattractive scruff is gaining in appreciation for its untamed beauty and for the dinner it provides resident bees, butterflies and other beneficial insects.
Undoubtedly, banning pesticides for cosmetic use has helped towards more relaxed attitudes, but of greater significance is a growing awareness about the plight of pollinators.
Pollinators supply crucial ecological services but their numbers are in decline; their habitats have mostly disappeared. We have lost meadowlands, grasslands, marshlands suited to nesting sites and feeding and reproduction. Pesticides, climate change all factor in hugely.
Thankfully, urban environments are growing with the potential of supporting large numbers of pollinators.
According to the Urban Pollinators Project (Bristol University), half of Germany’s entire bee fauna have been found in Berlin, 35% of British hoverfly species were sampled in a single Leicester garden and honeybees produce more honey in urban Birmingham than in the surrounding countryside.
The Pollinator Paradise Project recently helped launch the Monarch Awards with Bev Wagar of Crown Point Garden Club and the Royal Botanical Garden. It’s an award that honours this changing landscape.
For it's first year, an impressive 49 applicants applied. They spoke loving about their gardens and how grateful they felt that finally, native plant gardens were being acknowledged for their beauty and functionality.
Sean James (Fern Ridge Landscaping & Eco-consulting) was one of the judges on the panel. A landscaper, designer and garden hobbyist, Sean agrees that perceptions towards gardening for nature have changed “massively.”
“Ten years ago, I would have had to hide eco-initiatives, people would physically shy away from anything like that,” Sean says, “but now the awareness is there, people want to do the right thing.”
In Sean’s opinion, lower income communities and the really wealthy ones who can afford to try out new things, are the most forward thinking. Sean remarks that another factor that is contributing to this change includes concerns over potential flooding; “so planning rainscapes (landscape enhancements that reduce stormwater runoff) is of interest.” Sean notes that the Monarch Awards contestants were reflective of these changes: from rain gardens, soil stewardship, water management and more.”
Mapping the change
Think of how exhausting it must be for a bee to have to travel long distances in search of food. Doesn't it make sense that the food should be available in foraging range?
The PPP is mapping out existing habitat and garden sites and highlighting priority areas for habitat creation to build on the 300m distances needed between sites. If your property is pollinator friendly, or if you know of a property that is, contact the project to be added to the map. Free certification of sites is available as well as a lovely “We’re feeding pollinators” sign.
Published September 18, 2017.
Hamilton Monarch Awards 2017 winner, Amy Taylor has been gardening for more than half of her life. The 48 year old didn’t initially start of gardening for nature, however. What’s more, in the beginning, she gardened in pots because she didn’t have an actual garden space. As a tea leaf reader, tea enthusiast and community herbalist, Amy’s interest was initially in growing medicinal herbs, rather than for habitat or even growing food. That’s when she noticed that growing medicinal herbs correlated with growing for nature. Many Ontario native plants are also medicinal plants, like Echinacea, Bloodroot, Coltsfoot, Wild Ginger, to name just a few.
When Amy and her husband Mick moved to Hamilton from Toronto ten years ago, they counted over 140 plants that they brought over with them. “When we bought our home, we knew it was up to us to be as environmentally sustainable as we could with it and the garden," Amy says. "With Hamilton having the unfortunate reputation of being dirty and polluted, we knew better as we saw the amazing green-spaces and natural habitats for wildlife." It was partly because of the escarpment and the Greenbelt around the city that made them buy in Hamilton, Amy shares, "but it was also that we recognized that we are ultimately responsible for this planet." With that realization, they sought to make their small, 100 x 20 foot lot of it be as environmentally viable as possible: "We joined Bullfrog Power, we installed a composter, we recycle nearly everything and we planted those first 140 plants with a vision of a better planet."
Garden of Delights
Amy talks with captivating passion about the flowers in her garden, including the likes of bloodroot, coltsfoot, buddleia (butterfly bush, which she diligently deadheads), the red flowering crabapple tree, the milkweed, goldenrod, echinacea, obedient plant which starts of stark white, then goes purple, and yellow jewelweed that grows 8 ft tall, and hides her neighbour's garage.
What’s her favourite plant? “Probably my most favourite in the garden is the Cercis canadensis, Eastern Redbud tree,” Amy responds. “My Mum and I bought this tree together. I loved it because it has heart shaped leaves, beautiful purple pink pea shaped flowers in spring and pea shaped seed pods and lovely yellow leaves in fall. We bought it because she and I are like two peas in a pod.”
Published Nov 12, 2017
Biodiversity starts with insects.
Doug Tallamy delivered an absolutely riveting presentation last week at the RBG. A Chickadee's Guide to Gardening took the perspective of a (Carolina) chickadee's experience in a regular garden as a place to breed: would there be enough food and shelter for it to live its life, including rear its young?
Doug told us how he had surveyed over 1176 trees in Portland, Oregon. He noted that of this number, only 100 were indigenous. He observed that there were not that many birds: “Woodpeckers, kinglets, junco etc aren’t breeding in our greenest city, because there are no trees to breed in.The city is a biological desert!”
Most of our cities lack biodiversity, but, as Doug says, we can fix this. He demonstrated how to do so from the perspective of birds, and more specifically, through a year of the life of our little Carolina Chickadee friend.
In the Spring
Chickadees are cavity nesters (as are 85% species of north American birds) so it is important to leave snags in your yard. For nest-building purposes, a good tree is the Winter Pine. Chickadees like to use hair (horse and cat hair) to line their nests.
Time to feed the young baby chickadees! Did you know that baby bird can’t eat seeds? Birds rear their young on caterpillars. They eat seeds and berries after they reproduce.
“Birds absolutely need caterpillars, lots and lots of caterpillars to make a clutch of chickadees,” Doug pointed out. Doug told the audience that he watched chickadee parents bring in about 30 caterpillars in 27 minutes.
“There were 17 species of caterpillars in 3 hours,” Doug said. That means 6000-9000 caterpillars to make a clutch of caterpillars.
So why does biodiversity of caterpillars matter, Doug asked the audience?
“If I had 1-2 species a year, that wouldn’t be enough to reproduce, so there must be diversity and stability in this ecosystem,” he said.
How do we make landscapes that produce abundance?
We have to consider the specialized relation between birds and insects. So we have to build landscapes of food webs for caterpillars. We need trees like black cherry, black walnut, native maples, and of course oaks, which are the kings of trees that support biodiversity.
Also, why focus only on backyard habitat, “why hide it in the back? That means you are cutting the diversity in half.”
"What we need to remember is as individuals, we own a lot of property (ex. 85 % of Texas is privately owned), which means we can do a lot: “We would be almost there.”
Habitats HAVE TO SUPPORT life. They also offer invaluable serves like sequestering carbon (soils can sequester 7 times the amount of carbon in the air), cleaning and managing water (watershed plants protect our watershed), enriching soils, and supporting pollinators.
Doug offered us a challenge: the 12 by 12 experiment. He suggested we fill a space this size with native plant species, be it trees, bushes, or flowers. Doug himself planted a white oak from a seed, which has grown 25 ft in 14 years. He notes that on July 25 2014, the counted 410 caterpillars and 19 different species.
We need to understand that it takes tens of thousands of years to develop those relationships. That's why it is crucial that we plant native species of trees, and a wide range of biodiverse ones at that.