There’s no denying that native pollinators are important — and there are things you can do to encourage these keystone species to come live on your land.
Native pollinators are critical for forages and crops, agroforestry specialist Luke Wonneck said during a recent Foothills Forage and Grazing Association webinar.
“Pollination is plant sex. Because plants are stationary, they’ve enlisted helpers to help them do it,” he said.
Three-quarters of all plants require pollinators (versus wind or even water to transfer their pollen) — and those species make up a lot of our food supply, including crops such as canola, alfalfa, clover, mustard, vegetables and fruits.
“Pollinators are a keystone species,” said Wonneck, who works for the Agroforestry and Woodlot Extension Society. “When they are taken out of the ecosystem, the rest of the species start to crumble. It’s important to protect them and have them there.”
Bats, birds, flies, wasps, beetles, butterflies and moths all pollinate, but bees are the most efficient pollinators.
“When people think about bees, they often think about the European honeybee,” but producers should be thinking of native Alberta bees, said Wonneck.
There are 321 native bee species, and they are more efficient than any other pollinator, including honeybees, because they are adapted to Alberta conditions. So they’re up and foraging earlier in the day, even in wetter and colder conditions.
Best of all, unlike honeybees, native bees don’t ever have rental charges attached to them.
“You don’t have to spend money for them. You just have to have habitat for them,” said Wonneck.
While 44 per cent of native bee species are in good shape, an equal number are considered vulnerable.
“There is cause to be concerned for native bees in Alberta,” said Wonneck.
How to help
Along with reliable access to pollen and nectar, pollinators need shelter and protection from pesticides.
Wonneck recommends choosing flowering species with diverse shapes, sizes and bloom characteristics, because different pollinators are attracted to different flowers.
“There’s anecdotal evidence that bees like yellows and purples, and flies prefer whites,” he said.
Smaller pollinators have shorter tongues and can’t access some of the bigger flowers, while other species like bumblebees have long tongues and can access the nectar in deeper flowers. (Bumblebees can also ‘buzz pollinate’ by entering a flower and bouncing around, which showers them with pollen.)
Many pollinators are also pest suppressors, which means that they prey on or parasitize insects that harm crops. For example, some species of parasitoid wasps are also pollinators.
“When you are creating pollinator habitat, you are doing more than creating habitat for pollinators,” said Wonneck. “You’re providing habitat for insects that pollinate and suppress pests.”
And there are many ways to provide habitat — in fact, the more different types, the better.
“Basically, what we’re arguing for is just having diversity out there so you’ll be able to attract a diversity of pollinators,” he said.
Having plant species that bloom at different times — whether that is wildflowers, trees, shrubs or forbs — ensures pollinators stay fed. Clumping helps — for example, if bees find a clump of dogwood trees, they will concentrate their feeding efforts there.
“Because when they leave the hive, they tend to only focus on one flower at a time,” he said.
Native plant species are ideal — as native pollinators like them but non-native pest species may not.
“Focusing on native species in general is ideal. It can be harder to get them, and they can be more expensive,” he said.
About 80 per cent of Alberta’s wild bees nest in the soil — most are solitary and burrow and lay their eggs in the soil. So leaving some undisturbed areas of soil and bare patches will help, he said. The other 20 per cent nest above ground, such as deadfall or in the hollow stems of rushes, reeds and raspberry canes. Pollinator habitat should also be nice and sunny, and protected from insecticides, said Wonneck, who urged his audience to think about insecticide drift.
“Agricultural landscapes are diverse, and they’re a bunch of different habitats. Where are good opportunities to establish pollinator habitat? Wet areas, wetlands, marginal lands, or places where your yield may not be that great anyway.”
Pollinators can also thrive in ditches, along shelterbelts, or in the corners or any part of a field where cropping doesn’t make sense. Livestock producers should graze their animals in ways that enable flowering plants to rejuvenate themselves, and allow for lots of buffer areas.
In addition to surveying their land for good habitat, producers should also be able to recognize areas where pollinators are already established.
“If you build it, they will come. Make sure you look at what you have, and make sure you connect it across the landscape as much as possible,” he said.
“Having the habitat closer is better, but even having habitat within 150 metres means that most of the pollinators should be able to access any crop that you want pollinated.”