Farmers create new habitats for bees, butterflies and other pollinators

By the Canadian Federation of Agriculture

Next time you pass an apple orchard, or a strawberry patch, look closely and you may see some of the hardest workers in field — of course you’d have to look VERY closely, since pollinating insects like bees and butterflies are hard to spot from a distance. But you can bet that farmers keep a close on these critters, since they understand the vital role they play in growing a bountiful crop. 

Take for example Ontario farmers Marc and Chantal Bercier — winners of the 2016 Canadian Farmer-Rancher Pollinator Conservation Award. They recently revitalized a wetland on their farm to conserve water quality and, as part of this work, they created a new pollinator habitat.  

“For me, it’s very important to farm with a vision of how future generations will benefit from agriculture. I am always thinking about how to improve our operation so that I can pass my knowledge and experience on to younger people that are interested in starting a business in farming,” said Marc Bercier.

The Berciers wanted to support the biodiversity on their farm so they planted a variety of trees, shrubs and native flowers. These species provide food for a variety of wild species, including pollinators such as flies, bats, moths, birds and more. The Berciers have created many pollinator sites around their farm and quality pollen sources throughout the spring, summer and fall. The sites are populated with over 30 different species of plants and flowers.  The project received funding from Alternative Land-Use Canada (ALUS Canada).

Conservation award winner Marc Bercier stands near the reinvigourated area of his farm, which supports pollinating insects and the overall environmental objectives of his business.

Conservation award winner Marc Bercier stands near the reinvigourated area of his farm, which supports pollinating insects and the overall environmental objectives of his business.

What’s happening with the bee population and climate change?

The Earth’s climate is a series of complicated systems, all intertwined and dependent on one another. A change in one system can lead to a multitude of changes in others that are almost impossible to predict or plan for. A prime example of this is the relationship between climate, honeybees and the plants they pollinate.

The bee population has been very volatile recently, seeing sharp drops in the last few years and rebounding in Canada more recently. No one can give a definite reason for either the losses or the new recovery. Some level the blame at neonicotinoids, a pesticide that is sprayed on crops, while others look to habitat loss or changing weather patterns. While no definitive answer can be found, experts say that a combination of factors that have led to the changes in bee populations.

Recent studies have found that bees are affected greatly by climate change, due to the symbiotic relationship they have with their food sources. The plants that provide nectar and food for bees use these insects to spread their pollen, which allows the plants to breed.

But some researchers are worried that climate change is creating an environment where these organisms are no longer in sync with one another, hurting both bees and the plants they pollinate.

Bee and flower2.jpg

“Some species of pollinators have co-evolved with one species of plant,” said Wayne Esaias in an interview with NASA’s Earth Observatory. He is a biological oceanographer who has been raising bees since 1990.

“The two species time their cycles to coincide, for example, insects maturing from larva to adult precisely when nectar flows begin,”

But if the cues that signal the insects or plants to mature are disrupted, it can lead to dangerous consequences. As an example, Esaias points to how a single cold night at the wrong time can set a bee colony back weeks.

“What limits the growth of my honeybees in the spring are those coldest of the cold nights, because what is happening in their colony is that they are in a cluster, and they have to keep the queen and the larvae at 34 degrees. They do that by eating lots of honey, and tensing their muscles, and generating heat.” Once it becomes warm enough outside to maintain a temperature of 34 degrees, the bees begin to lay eggs around the cluster, and the cluster expands. Without any interruptions, larva will grow into full grown bees in about 3 weeks. However, if there is a night where it become too cold to maintain the temperature, the eggs on the outside of the cluster will die and the colony must start the process over again. If the plants that these bees are synchronized with are not similarly delayed, the growth of this new generation of bees will no longer coincide the beginning of nectar production.

Jeremy Kerr, a professor at the University of Ottawa and author of the study Climate change impacts on bumblebees converge across continents, posits that climate change is disrupting the areas that are habitable for bees in terms of temperature, and the pollinators can’t keep up.

“They just aren’t colonizing new areas and establishing new populations fast enough to track rapid human-caused climate change,” he said on a call with journalists.

While other pollinators have simply migrated further north, Kerr found that bees at the north end of their habitable zones have failed to move, while many populations in the more southern areas have simply died. In total, bees have lost a range of up to nearly 200 miles in North America and Europe. While the study evaluated land use changes and pesticide application in addition to weather conditions, it attributed the drop in population to climate change.

While they can’t control the weather, one way in which farmers are helping the bee population is by creating more pollinator habitats at their farms, giving bees more food sources and allowing them to propagate and sustain their hives.

One thing is for certain, our climate is changing and beekeeping and agriculture are evolving with it.