How pollinator friendly is your farm?
A new study being conducted at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s Brandon Research and Development Centre is looking to gather data on the province’s native bees and create an on-farm habitat-assessment tool.
“We don’t have a lot of information on native bees in Manitoba but we are starting to get better information,” said Melanie Dubois, senior riparian and biodiversity biologist at AAFC.
“For the first part of this project we have 12 different fields set up around Brandon, generally within a 15-km radius, and we are doing sampling in those areas to find out which pollinators are present.”
To get a better understanding of which insects are populating the area, the researchers have placed a number of plastic cups in field margins, which attract the bees due to their colour. Once the bees enter the cup they drown in a solution of propylene glycol and dish detergent and are collected a week later.
“We are focusing on the native bees simply because those are ones that do a really good and efficient job of pollinating,” Dubois said.
Honeybees have not been included in the study as they are non-native and are considered to be livestock.
They live in the soil
Dubois says there are approximately 231 different species of bees in Manitoba, including 24 different species of bumblebees.
“About 80 per cent of the bees in Manitoba live in the soil, and they need undisturbed soil,” Dubois said. “How much undisturbed soil do you think we have in Manitoba? Not a lot, so when we talk about habitat destruction for native bees it’s not just losing the flowers and food that they eat but it is nesting material too.”
The goal of the project is not only to understand the current state of native bees in the province but also to develop an assessment tool to identify the quality of the local habitat and pinpoint areas of improvement.
The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation in Portland, Oregon developed the assessment tool that Dubois is using for the study.
“It should work well here because it was designed for the upper Midwest but we are tweaking it a little bit and adding in a few more components on the actual vegetation,” Dubois said.
The tool, called Pollinator Habitat Assessment Form and Guide for Farms and Agriculture Landscapes, focuses on landscape features, year-round resources, nesting habitats and farm practices.
Dubois and her team have been using the tool to assess habitat within one kilometre of their sampling sites.
The long-term goal of the study will be to train individuals to come onto the farm, determine which bees are in the area, assess the local habitat and provide recommendations on ways to bump populations.
Dubois has been working closely with her AAFC counterparts to select appropriate plant species and establishment techniques for Manitoba.
“We are looking to determine not only what species you put in but what is the best way to get them established and then how do you maintain it so it doesn’t turn into a mess of weeds?” Dubois said. “There is no point of coming up with an expensive mix that then attracts weeds. We are hoping to come up with something that is practical to do on a farm scale.”
According to the Xerces assessment tool, there are a number of cover crops and crops that provide pollen and nectar for native bees. Examples include alfalfa, alsike clover, buckwheat, crimson clover, corn, Dutch white clover, fababeans, red clover, sainfoin, soybeans, sunflower and purple vetch.
Dubois says that when looking at what is available to the bees, it’s important to consider how far they are likely to fly.
“When you are getting into the mid-size bees, they can fly about a kilometre but when you are looking at the really small bees, they might go 15 metres.”
The size of the bee and space between their shoulders is what determines how far they are able to fly.
The bumblebee can fly up to two kilometres, which is the farthest of all native bees.
“So that is when you start to get an idea that if you want to have a healthy and diverse pollinator species, you have to think about what habitat is available to them because they will only fly so far,” Dubois said.
Local producers sought
The study is slated to continue through next year. Dubois is currently looking for 10 to 12 Brandon-area canola producers who would be willing to take part.
“We would be looking to set up a number of cups in and around your canola fields. We would place them at the time of bloom, check them about once and week and remove them at the end of the season,” Dubois said. “What you will get is pictures for your bees, maybe one or two samples and a report that tells you all about your habitat in the area, a list of plants that are there that are good for your bees and break it all down for you.”
For more information, contact Dubois at 204-578-6646.