If you’ve ever complained about there being too many bees around, consider yourself lucky. Pollinators – such as bees, butterflies and bats – are responsible for the continued existence of more than 70 per cent of the world’s flowering plant population.
But they are significantly decreasing in number.
By carrying pollen from the male to female parts of flowers, pollinators assist in plant reproduction and thus biodiversity. Unfortunately, as a result of habitat destruction and alteration, pesticide use, and the introduction of diseases, the abundance and diversity of pollinators are drastically decreasing.
Steve Javorek – a research biologist for Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) – is one researcher looking specifically at developing conservation and restoration guidelines for the landscape to nurture the preservation of native bee populations in Canada.
“Most fruit, vegetables and seed crops depend on bees for pollination,” Javorek said. “No less than 90 commercially grown food crops in Canada rely on pollinators. As we become more disconnected from where our food comes from, such things as the role of bees and the implications of their decline fail to resonate in our everyday lives.”
As keystone species – those on which other species depend – the more than 700 types of native bees in Canada have a unique role in the maintenance of the country’s biodiversity.
They are essential to the reproductive cycles of most flowering plants and thus to the ecosystem itself, by supporting plant populations that other animals and birds rely on for food and shelter. If the proper environments don’t exist for these bees, they cannot survive to continue pollinating the plants for which they are uniquely responsible.
“When a person is looking for a new house, they consider how easy it will be for them to access the things they will need such as the groceries,” Javorek said.
“In one sense, bees are very much the same as us – their “neighbourhood” must include a suitable place to live from which they can access food and other requirements over the course of their life span.
“The loss of this ‘real estate’ limits areas where diverse bee communities can survive. The loss or reduction of bees and their pollination services sends ripples throughout the entire ecosystem that impact the very sustainability and resilience of the landscape.”
Thankfully, researchers are formulating realistic management programs for the landscapes inhabited by bees and other pollinators.
“Bees are very misunderstood by most people,”Javorek says. “When we think of bees, the picture of a hive with the queen supported by her workers generally comes to mind. The vast majority of native bees, however, are solitary; each female constructs her own nest which she provisions with pollen and nectar for her young. Our only native bees that form a colony are bumble bees.”
Native bees nest in a wide variety of habitats including soil, wood and cavities and, depending on the species, can pollinate a wide variety of flowers or, in some cases, form an intricate relationship with a single plant species.
Unlike honey bees, whose hives can be moved closer to food supplies, native bees must make a living on the resources offered by their local environment. If the land is altered, their food supply and home are disturbed, and they’ll either leave or cease to exist.
In collaboration with farmers, landscapers and the general public, pollinator and plant diversity can be maintained.
“Simple changes can make a big difference,” Javorek says. “Incorporating native flowers and plants into a family garden not only looks nice, but can offer nesting opportunities and a source of nectar and pollen for these critters.”
City planners can integrate green spaces into their layouts, and farmers can enhance or maintain “bee friendly” habitat on their land to promote diverse native bee communities.
“There were some blueberry farmers in eastern Canada that took notice of the declining bees,” Javorek said. “They need their blueberries, and the blueberries need the bees, so they were really interested in what they could do to help.”
So next time you’re admiring a garden full of flowers, or the abundance of fresh local produce in the store, remember you have pollinators to thank and do your part in saving these irreplaceable little critters.