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Susan Chan explains the specialized pollination performed by squash bees. Photo: Lucy Martin
Susan Chan explains the specialized pollination performed by squash bees. Photo: Lucy Martin

What farmers and landowners can to to sustain bees

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For years we've been hearing different reporting on a basic theme: A third of our food supply depends on bees and pollinating insects are in a serious state of decline. Most of that attention has been focused on domesticated honey bees. But there are hundreds of species of wild pollinating insects and they play key roles too.

That may be why a seminar called "Bringing back the Bees" held in Perth, Ontario last September, generated a strong response. Lucy Martin attended the day of talks, plus a field tour of a berry and vegetable farm, as experts shared simple ways to help pollinators right now.

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How many people might you expect to give up a whole Sunday, just to talk about what pollinators need? 40? 100?

Many pollinators nest in the ground. Photo:Lucy Martin
Many pollinators nest in the ground. Photo:Lucy Martin
Try 152. That's how many turned out for this event. Susan Moore worked on the advance publicity. "In the last couple of years, particularly, it's become a huge topic—both because of the problem of decline of bees and all that it means for our food, and also because there are just so many more beekeepers now that are interested in finding out more about how do I do that on my property?"

Moore says she was "really pleased" with the turnout, "and really pleased with the mix of people. Really interesting mix of gardeners and farmers and people that just want to find out how to attract bees to their own little patch of backyard."

Judging by a show of hands, three-quarters of attendees were rural residents. A little over half live said they on an acre or more of land.

Pat Gore is on the Lanark County Stewardship Council, a sponsor of the seminar. He's a tree farmer. "Of course bees are quite important in the pollination of certain species: basswood, fruit trees, cherry, apple. I've got a lot of these trees, in amongst my mixed forest. Most of the trees I'm planting now are spruce, pine."

Gore says these days the provincial government just doesn't have a lot of extra money – raising worries the stewardship movement might disappear. But he says a lot of people in this area have volunteered to keep the movement going. And this is one of the things they've put on.

The seminar's main presenter was Susan Chan. Back in the '80s, when she got her Masters degree in pollination biology, Chan said people's eyes used to glaze over on that subject. But not anymore.

Area residents Mitch Rasmussen and Barb McIntyre own 84 acres and want to protect sustainability. Photo: Lucy Martin
Area residents Mitch Rasmussen and Barb McIntyre own 84 acres and want to protect sustainability. Photo: Lucy Martin
It turns out there are some 400 types of pollinators in Ontario alone. Only about 10 of those live in colonies – many others are scattered, solitary dwellers. According to Chan, four big problems are hitting all pollinators: insecticides, habitat destruction, reproductive isolation and climate change.

One of the main flashpoints when it comes to bee health is class of systemic pesticides known as neonicotinoids. Chan said most conventional farming in Ontario now involves at least some use of those chemicals, even as evidence grows linking them to a decline in beneficial insects, like butterflies and bees. "It's a farmer problem, but it's not caused by farmers. It's just a situation in which farmers find themselves. They have very little government support for Integrated Pest Management, and they don't have access to seed that isn't treated."

Chan thinks the province needs exit strategies. "You know, there's no point in saying we have to ban neonicotinoids tomorrow - because it'll have a devastating effect on Ontario farmers. And we don't want to have that effect. Because we want farmers - we need farmers."

More choices - and better support for other techniques - would help farmers decide whether they want to plant neonicotinoid-treated seed or not. "We've got to only be using treated seed where there is a problem. So stop this prophylactic treatment of things that aren't even there. And then we need to phase out the other neonicotinoids on other crops."

Susan Chan talks about how wild plants feed and shelter pollinators in important ways - not all weeds are "bad." Photo: Lucy Martin
Susan Chan talks about how wild plants feed and shelter pollinators in important ways - not all weeds are "bad." Photo: Lucy Martin
Talking about "the way forward" included an after-lunch drive over to Miller's Bay Farm. That's where Robert and Shannon Miller sell vegetables and berries through CSA shares and a popular road-side market – all on family land that includes bee hives and many pollinator-friendly practices.

Even though they can fly, it turns out pollinators - especially the solitary ones - cover a pretty small territorial range. So having basics needs nearby matters a lot. Huge tilled fields - sprayed bare and planted in one single crop - are virtual food deserts for many beneficial insects.

Chan recommends thinking in terms of layers, permanence and variety - so friendly insects have enough to eat.

Conventional agriculture doesn't turn on a dime. And the neonicotiniod issue is far from settled.

But raising awareness can make a real difference. Even on non-organic farms and gardens – leaving some pockets untilled and insecticide-free can provide sanctuaries of safe food and undisturbed living space.

Adding more of these simple steps can help pollinators - one woodlot, one farm and one backyard garden at a time.

Note: Sue Chan will give a talk on "Conserving Native Bees in Ontario" at Ottawa Public Library's main branch August 14 at 6:30 pm at an event host by the organization "Just Food."

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