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Pollinator seed mixes tailor made

Just like cattle and hogs benefit from the right rations, bees can benefit from the right mix of flowering plants

What’s good for the bumblebee may not be good for the honeybee.

That was the message as the Manitoba Beef and Forage Initiatives dug into pollinator-friendly seed mixes Aug. 30 during its Brookdale site field tour.

“You want to have something that’s going to grow and, depending on how much time they have, legumes in the mix would be good. Some native flowering plants would be great to make it diverse,” said Kim Wolfe, Manitoba Agriculture research and development specialist. “It’s a hard balance to find something that’s going to grow well, but also be diverse and the more diversity you get, the more challenging it is to grow.”

Colour and bloom size may also be considerations, particularly when multiple native pollinators, rather than just domestic honeybees, are in play. Research suggests there are 231 species of wild bees in Manitoba, some of which vary widely in size and may be unable to reach the nectar in larger flowers with deeper tubes. Wolfe argued that a range of flower sizes ensures both large and small bees have a food source.

Blue and purple flowers are the best draw for pollinators, the crowd heard, while yellow blooms are generally more attractive than white.

Wolfe pointed to research that showed yield benefits of pollination.

In a 2014 study looking at the relationship between insect pollination and crop production in four regions of Europe, Dr. Ignasi Bartomeus found average yield increased between 18 and 71 per cent with insect pollination, depending on the crop, and quality was generally higher.

At the same time, Wolfe pointed to a 2006 study out of Simon Fraser University that found canola fields abutting uncultivated acres saw higher bee populations and seed set.

Pollinating for profit

For commercial beekeepers, sufficient pollinator habitat is crucial and it is not unusual to make arrangements for hives to be moved into neighbouring farmers’ fields during flowering.

Kim Wolfe, Manitoba Agriculture research and development specialist
photo: Alexis Stockford

Some apiarists, however, are unwilling to leave things to nature or depend on their neighbours’ land and are instead turning to custom mixes to manage their bees’ diet.

Rhonda Chestnut, a sales agronomist for Northstar Seed based in the Interlake, has experience on both sides. A hobby beekeeper herself, the Northstar employee has also created beekeeping seed mixes for customers.

“Part of it is when the flowers are maturing,” she said. “Making sure that the mixture has diverse species that have different flowering times so you can have a constant ‘something’ in flower for the bees to feed on during the season.”

A staggered planting time might be part of that, she added.

“I recommended that they planted it in six-week intervals,” she said. “So, he would do half of his field in early May and then have the early flowering six weeks later, and then plant the next batch 21 to 30 days later so that he would have flowering into late August with this mix.”

Corporate support

Manitobans had their choice between two corporate programs looking to grow wild pollinator habitat this year. Operation Pollinator, a program through Syngenta Canada and the Soil Conservation Council of Canada, is wrapping up its first year in Western Canada while General Mills Cheerios has teamed up with the Xerces Society to target oat growers.

Syngenta hoped to see 100 Prairie growers sign on with the program, which provides up to two acres of seed to producers, as well as agronomy advice and financial support to offset the cost of seeding.

It’s the first year for the program in Western Canada and about 80 producers have joined so far, according to Dr. Paul Hoekstra, Syngenta Canada senior stewardship and policy manager.

The company was pleased by both the uptake and the success of Operation Pollinator stands, despite abnormally dry weather throughout the Prairies, Hoekstra reported.

“To me, it’s a really great program that offers a way for farmers to increase and improve biodiversity on the farm as well as a way for us to refocus our efforts in looking at low-productivity lands as a way of using them differently,” he said.

The seed mix includes phacelia, bird’s-foot trefoil, timothy grass, alsike, red clover and sweet clover.

Producers may plant the seed in more than one location, although Syngenta has asked that patches cover at least one acre. The program also asks that Operation Pollinator acres are untouched rather than harvested for forage at the end of the season.

“It allows for a natural area for pollinator habitat for overwintering so a lot of those native pollinators can be sort of left and have a chance to survive the winter and have a population into the spring,” Hoekstra said.

Supply chain integration

The Cheerios program is aiming for larger acreage. Non-oat-growing producers can access up to 10 acres of seed, while oat-producing farms can access up to a quarter section worth. All producers must commit to leaving the stand for at least three to five years.

“The program is primarily intended to provide free flowering seed for folks who are growing oats and this is intended to integrate pollinator habitat into the supply chain for Cheerios and oats is a primary ingredient of Cheerios,” Jim Eckberg, Xerces Society plant ecologist, said. “Most of the acres really need to be on those farms that are producing oats, but we also recognize that not every farmer produces oats but they’re still in those regions that grow oats and even if you do grow oats, they might not find their way into Cheerios.”

The overwhelming majority of participants, about 99 per cent, have been on oat-growing farms, Eckberg said.

General Mills hopes to add 3,300 acres of pollinator habitat to the landscape by 2020. As of spring 2018, the program will have 1,200 acres committed at 35 locations in both the Prairies and northern United States.

Producers in the program may opt for a pure native wildflower blend or a pasture mix with legumes, although many users have integrated both, Eckberg said.

The wildflower mix was chosen from plants native to the tall grass prairie, including dotted blazing star, wild bergamot, slender beardtongue and both warm- and cool-season grasses. The pasture mix integrates species like sainfoin, clover, alfalfa and cicer milk vetch.

Some variation

The list of species in each mix is fixed, but concentrations may be customized to include more or less of a specific plant.

“A farmer providing input to the seed mixture, that’s a key part of our program,” Eckberg said. “We want to both make a meaningful impact to pollinator conservation on the farm by increasing the amount of blooms, providing blooms through much of the year, but we want to integrate flowers onto the farm in a way that’s going to add value to the farm.”

Those opting for the pasture mix may use the land for rotational grazing or haying, although one to five per cent must be left after each cut.

“We specifically designed the mixture around forage legumes that are particularly tame,” Eckberg said. “So we’ve excluded species like bird’s-foot trefoil and yellow sweet clover. We’ve excluded crested wheatgrass, reed canarygrass, meadow foxtail — a lot of these species that we know have this track record of being invasive, we’ve excluded from the program and I think we are providing kind of a reduced-risk mixture in terms of potential invasive (species) compared to what is often used in forage production.”

Operation Pollinator includes both bird’s-foot trefoil and yellow sweet clover, although Hoekstra disputed the idea that any species in their seed might be considered invasive.

“We developed these mixes in consultation with a variety of stakeholders including our provincial partners and the mix is representative of a wide variety of species that are sort of checking off a number of boxes,” he said. “They’re developed to sort of look at coexistence with farming practices and habitat creation as well as commercial availability and scalability, as well as utility over a wide number of geographic areas. Bird’s-foot trefoil, along with the other components of the seed mix, are commonly used as forage crops in the Prairies, including Manitoba.”

Hoekstra added that the program will look at its initial results to determine any improvements for next year.

Good start

Wolfe, meanwhile, was optimistic about both programs.

“Both are good and they’re both serving the purpose of creating pollinator habitat,” she said. “It just depends on if you want to have a more diverse flowering mix. The Cheerios flowering mix is very diverse. Its pasture-legume mix is also flowering, but it’s more similar to the Syngenta mix, which is grass-legume.”

Producers looking to create their own native flowering mix, whether for native pollinators or beekeeping, may be in for a case of sticker shock. Wolfe started her own native flower plot at the MBFI Brookdale site this year, a project that cost about $500 to plant 500 square metres.

Likewise Eckberg says the Cheerios project runs up to $325-$350 per acre for the flower mix, a cost that goes down to $35-$50 per acre in the pasture option.

Producers interested in either corporate program can contact Eckberg at [email protected] or join Operation Pollinator through their local conservation district.

About the author

Reporter

Alexis Stockford is a journalist and photographer with the Manitoba Co-operator. She previously reported with the Morden Times and was news editor of  campus newspaper, The Omega, at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, BC. She grew up on a mixed farm near Miami, Man.

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