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The Profits of Protecting Pollinators

By Mike Weber, Land Care Niagara

Pollination is very important when growing crops, whether they be orchard, vegetable, or field crops.  Plants go about this in various ways, including by wind or self-pollination, but it has been shown that 35% of the world’s food crops depend on animal pollinators (bees, butterflies and moths, birds and bats, and beetles and other insects). 

Why Invest in Biodiversity?

Many farmers rely on honey bees for pollination services on their farms, but increasingly, there is research supporting the benefits of having a greater biodiversity of pollinators.

  • Relying solely on one source of pollination can be risky if that species were to decline. 
  • Some research suggests that orchards visited by many different kinds of bees will have higher seed set and fruit set than those visited by one kind of bee.
  • Native pollinators (e.g. bumble bees) are often active at colder temperatures than honey bees, making them effective pollinators in cool wet springs when honey bees may be less active.
  • Wild bees are also more successful at pollen transfer and tend to carry more pollen on their bodies and deposit more pollen on the flower stigma.
  • Although honey bees are great pollinators, native bees can be specialists for certain crops and outperform the honey bee.  Squash bees are better for squash, pumpkin, zucchini and gourds; bumblebees for blueberries and greenhouse tomatoes; and mason bees for orchard crops.  

How Can Biodiversity Be Increased On-Farm?

Native pollinators include bees, certain types of flies, and to a smaller extent, butterflies and moths, who do pollinate, but not always crop species. Native pollinator populations continue to decline due to habitat loss, disease, and climate change. Growers can help pollinators by protecting natural habitat and adding additional flowering plants that can support native bees, beneficial insects and butterflies (e.g. monarch butterflies). These plantings help create nesting habitat, as well as pollen and nectar for pollinators. Native habitats also increase the aesthetics of the farm, creating curbside appeal to tourists visiting wineries and enhancing their environmental sustainability.  

Case Study: Increasing Vineyard Biodiversity

Land Care Niagara (LCN) is currently engaged in planting pollinator gardens for monarch butterfly habitat throughout the Niagara Region.  We are working with private landowners to create more pollinator habitat with a focus on monarch butterflies, but which also support other native pollinators and beneficial insects.

This year LCN worked with Southbrook Organic Vineyards, an organic winery located in Niagara-on-the-Lake, to plant 1.5 acres of pollinator habitat.  They were not only interested in the project for attracting butterflies and bees, but also parasitoid wasps that would help control pest insects at their vineyard. Of the 20 plus species planted and seeded at the garden, the species that have done the best in the first year of growth include the swamp milkweed, dense blazing star, heath aster, new England aster, evening primrose, black and brown eyed Susan, sweet oxeye and green headed coneflower (Figure 1 & 2). 

Black eyed Susans in bloom in vineyard.
Figure 1. Pollinator gardens require planning and time to fully mature

Setting aside space for pollinators does not have to mean giving up large tracts of land.  Planting a diversity of plants along hedgerows, windbreaks, and in natural and undeveloped parts of your land or even as cover crops can offer spaces for pollinators to live and food to eat. When considering what blooming plants to seed into these spaces, try to spread a variety of flowers, and consider the bloom time of each plant; pollinators need food sources throughout the growing season. The management of these areas is also important as you want to leave the flowering plants in the field for as long as possible so pollinators have a food source.  

Some native bees nest in cavities made in hollow or pithy stems of small twigs or dead trees, while others excavate tunnels in soil or occupy old beetle and rodent tunnels in the bare earth. Leaving some dead trees or patches of bare ground are easy ways to provide habitat for pollinators

Dense blazing star in flower
Figure 2 Dense Blazing Star

To encourage pollinators it is also important to be mindful of pesticide use.  Herbicides can remove many of the flowers that pollinators use as a food source.  Minimize pesticide risk by using integrated pest management programs, and if possible, select pesticides that are less toxic to bees. Avoid spraying during bloom and try to spray at dusk or in the evening when fewer pollinators will be active.  Even when crops are not in bloom, pollinators will be at nearby flowers and can be killed by drifting chemicals. Sub-lethal doses of insecticides may not kill pollinators outright, but have been shown to negatively impact their populations by damaging their ability to reproduce, hinder their natural growth, increase their vulnerability to external stressors, and even adversely affect their memory.  

Although planning a pollinator habitat can take some planning and work, it can benefit the crop (improve pollination), increase environmental sustainability and improve the overall appearance of your farm.  

Need Your Help!

So what pollinators work best and what is the most cost efficient way to incorporate pollinators in agricultural lands?  Though I don’t have all the answers, I’m currently collecting information on easy, low cost, low effort ways that farms can adjust their practices to have nature benefit them instead of wasting money and time fighting against it. If you’re interested, please contact me as I would enjoy the opportunity to talk to farmers in the Niagara Region, to get a better understanding of common practices in the industry in relation to pesticides and land management. 

With your help, I can come up with ways that not only benefit the environment, but benefit you by making the environment a contributing partner to your farm.

Mike Weber
Species at Risk Technician, Land Care Niagara

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