Workers we depend on

Published Tuesday, July 9, 2013 in the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal.

If you’ve ever been called a worker bee, consider it a compliment.  Bees are among the most important and hardest workers on the planet, and they fulfill a critical role in food production.  But their numbers have been declining in recent years, so they could use a bit of help.  

Critical pollination

It’s easy to be oblivious to the vital role of pollination in our food supply.  Pollination is a delicate plant process in which tiny grains of pollen are transferred from the part of a flower where they are produced to the part of the flower where they are needed.  It sounds simple, but it’s critical: without pollination, a plant cannot produce seeds or fruit.

Some crops, like wheat, corn and rice, are lucky: all they need is a little wind to swirl pollen about, and pollination happens.  However, most crops need a bit of help to transfer pollen from where it’s produced to where it’s needed.  Usually that help comes in the form of a visit by a bee, which, in the course of looking for a bit of food, moves pollen around and gets the job done.  Other insects and even some birds and bats pollinate flowers, but bees are the heavy lifters.  A large colony of bees is able to pollinate literally millions of flowers a day.

And what crops depend on outside help for pollination?  Apples, blueberries, strawberries, grapes, pears, peaches, plums, cherries and many other fruits.  Cucumbers, pumpkins, squash, cantaloupe and other melons.  Beans, cranberries, tomatoes, sunflowers, canola.  An estimated 90 percent of all flowering plants and one third of human food crops.  

You could say bees are to our food chain what airports like Toronto or Atlanta are to air travel: critical links.

Disappearing bees

Unfortunately, bees and other insect pollinators – whether managed pollinators like honeybees or wild pollinators like native bees – are in a global state of decline.  In Canada, honeybee colonies are increasingly struggling to survive over winter; one third of colonies have been lost in the past three years.  Similar losses are occurring in the US and the UK.  In Sichuan Province, China, the decline is even more dramatic: fruit trees must be pollinated by hand every spring – a huge and laborious task – because there are no longer enough insect pollinators available.  

The reasons for the decline are not entirely understood, but experts suspect a combination of factors are at play, including: diseases and parasites; exposure to pesticides; loss of habitat and food sources as land is converted from native vegetation to fields, lawns, subdivisions and cities; and a shifting climate that is causing plants to bloom earlier in the spring, throwing off nature’s longstanding synchrony between flowers and their pollinators.    

A helping hand

It’s clear that bees and other pollinators could use our help – but what can the average person do?  Here are a few suggestions:

First, help stem the decline by avoiding the use of pesticides, particularly insecticides.  When pesticide use is unavoidable, as in some commercial agriculture, strive to limit impacts on bees by spraying in the evening after bee activity has stopped; by using products with lower toxicity to bees; and by avoiding spraying during flowering periods when bees are most active. The degree to which pesticides are responsible for the decline of pollinators is still hotly debated, but intuition would suggest that products applied to kill destructive insects are bound to affect beneficial insects too.  

Second, help build bee populations by providing habitat and a continuous food supply.  Manicured lawns provide neither food nor habitat, so why not convert a corner of your property into a cluster of clover and other wildflowers (no mowing required!).  Strive to co-exist with the lowly dandelion; it provides much-needed early-season food for bees.  Consider planting a spectrum of perennials that flower all summer long; your garden center can advise you on bee preferences.  

Third, please don’t take our bee friends for granted.  They’re the workers we depend on.