Unkept areas provide important habitat for pollinators

Plants with varying bloom times provide food for beneficial insects

If the farmstead looks a bit messy and the fence lines are ragged, don’t feel guilty. Attribute it to thoughtful neglect.

Those untended areas can be food sources and homes for an array of wild insects that help agriculture with pollination.

Adam Ovinge, a beekeeper with Supernuc Apiaries near Granum, Alta., makes his living from honeybees, a species not native to Canada.

Although much attention is paid to honeybees, particularly lately due to concerns about colony collapse and pesticides, Ovinge isn’t worried about honeybee survival.

“People are going to find a way to make honeybees survive because we can make money at it,” said Ovinge.

“But all these native insects, they’re hanging by a thread because most people don’t even know they exist, and even more don’t care.

“They don’t see the benefit of them, but I think if we lose them, we’re going to see what they did.”

Alberta Agriculture ecologist Mark Wonneck agrees on the importance of wild insect pollinators. Collectively, their effect is immense.

“There’s no doubt they do play an economic role, for sure,” said Wonneck.

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“Wild bees, just like honeybees, do a lot of pollination. In fact, they’re really quite efficient, especially the larger native bees like bumblebees.

“They’re also generalists, so they go to a lot of different kinds of flowers, so they’re really important and valuable.”’

As a member of the Alberta Beekeepers Association, Ovinge is working with others to communicate the importance of habitat for wild pollinators on the Prairies.

Part of that is encouraging farmers and municipalities to consider wild pollinator habitat when managing field edges, roadside ditches, parks and other places.

“Eventually we’re going to hit a point where we need pollination and it’s just not there, and we’re going to look around us and go, ‘holy crap, when did all those bumblebees and wasps and hover flies and all that vanish?’

“Because its not really very high on most people’s priority lists. Most of the time people see them as pests.”

Ovinge said he understands farmers’ need to spray for invasive weeds and to farm efficiently. GPS guidance allows farmers to seed from fencerow to fencerow, but in that process habitat is lost.

“Grass is easy. It’s great for preventing erosion, it grows fast, it gets good coverage … it’s everything. But if you’ve got nothing out there but grass, it’s basically a desert to most insects, except for the bad insects that people are generally spraying for,” said Ovinge.

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Wonneck helped compile an Agriculture Canada publication entitled Native Pollinators and Agriculture in Canada, which outlines steps farmers can take to retain and promote beneficial wild insects.

He said there are more than 320 species of wild bees in Alberta alone and an unknown number of other insect species that help in pollination.

The key to their encouragement is variety. They need access to flowering plants from spring through to freeze up. That means canola, with its two-to-three week bloom window, won’t do the entire job.

“They need flower resources during the time that they’re active during the summer and what that basically means is they need a diverse array of flowering plants… that flower at different times and for different periods,” said Wonneck.

That is one reason both he and Ovinge appreciate the humble dandelion, which provides flowers throughout the season.

Later in the season, when the canola bloom is over, Ovinge has to scramble for other food sources for his honeybees. Wild pollinators will seek the same things.

“I love ranchers. Most of my bees spend most of their year on pasture, if I can find it, because then you get a mix. You get the dandelions in the spring. You get the alfalfa and legumes and sainfoins and clovers coming through the summer.”

A constant supply of different trees, shrubs and flowering plants is vital, agreed Wonneck. The distance between insect foraging areas is also important because many wild pollinators won’t fly too far from their nests.

Tips to protect wild pollinators:

  • Retain potential nesting sites like bare soil patches, dead branches, deadfall, hollow-stemmed plants like raspberry, old rodent burrows.
  • Create new habitat near fields or likely pollinator nesting areas.
  • Locate so bees must travel no more than 150 metres to the flowers.
  • Plant native flowering trees, shrubs and forbs, or pollen- and nectar rich legumes.
  • Plant a variety, with types that have different bloom shapes, colours, heights and growth habits and bloom times.
  • Minimize use of pesticides and herbicides.
  • Use pesticides in early morning or after sunset if possible.
  • Avoid herbicides on native flowering plants, especially when in flower.
  • Consider grazing intensity and its effects on foliage diversity.

Online extra: Know your bees

Sweat bee | USDA photo

Sweat bee | USDA photo

Leaf cutter bee | USDA photo

Leaf cutter bee | USDA photo

Carpenter bee | USDA photo

Carpenter bee | USDA photo

Bumble bee | USDA photo

Bumble bee | USDA photo

Mining bee | USDA photo

Mining bee | USDA photo

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  • Denise

    This a great article and much appreciated. Thank you so much for caring and drawing attention to this important issue.
    We ALL have to do our part to ensure these life- sustaining,busy, hard workers have a place to do their job.
    Spraying road allowances, destroying old farm sites, and old established sloughs take away some of the very few remaining refuges for the wild pollinators and butterflies. Where are they to go, now?
    Hopefully, municipalities are moving away from spraying road allowances and,in doing so, saving taxpayers a lot of unneeded expense. I have seen spraying done along road allowances with protected wildlife habitats right up next to them..! Please mow, don’t spray!
    We have to protect the wild flowers that grow in the ditches and all along the old road allowances,too. Not only are they amazingly beautiful and rare, but our beneficial insects need them in order to survive. There is so very little natural environment left around the grain fields,nowadays. It’s alarming!
    Yes, we were always led to believe everything must be neat and tidy, no weeds, no long grass etc.. Everything was expected to be manicured and tamed.But we will have to change that way of thinking or we’re going to end up with a pretty sterile environment to live in. Natural and pesticide-free spaces are almost nonexistent.
    It’s a beautiful sight to see a space by a farm, in the trees, or an old slough that has been left, untouched by machines or pesticides. You can see and hear nature at work in there. There are hardly any wild bees and butterflies in these spots, anymore., but there is still other living organisms and wild life. Gives me some hope. We haven’t lost it all,yet. But we’re getting close to the endgame.
    A little more ‘thoughtful neglect’ sounds like a great plan of action.