Saving our pollinators

Climate change and urbanization threatens the pollination of a third of our food supply

Several different bumblebee species are at risk in Canada. (Nicole Gonzalez Filos)

Several different bumblebee species are at risk in Canada. (Nicole Gonzalez Filos)

Pollinators are essential to human and ecosystem survival, but their populations are threatened by habitat loss, pesticide use, and rising global temperatures. 

Several wild bee species are currently listed under Canada’s species at risk registry, including the endangered rusty-patched bumblebee and the yellow-banded bumblebee. Honey bees are not native to North America. Believed to have originated in Africa, the honey bee was brought to Canada by European colonists in the early 1600s. Today, honey bees are found worldwide, except in high altitudes or polar regions where it is too cold for them to survive. 

According to Bees Matter, a partnership of agricultural organizations focused on the health of pollinator species, it’s estimated that pollinators are responsible for one in every three bites of food we eat and generate approximately $2 billion annually for the agriculture industry. They estimate there are over 8,500 beekeepers in Canada with more than 700,000 honey bee hives. In British Columbia alone, it’s estimated there are over 450 different species of wild bees

There are many more species of pollinators that are in decline. The David Suzuki Foundation estimates that 45 per cent of invertebrate species have declined over the past four decades worldwide, and over three-quarters of wild flowering plants depend on insect pollination. 

Saving pollinators go beyond the industrialized utility of honey bees. They are part of the larger conversation on the impacts of urbanization and climate change on our environment and food systems. 

John Gibeau, a former KPU beekeeping instructor and current webmaster for the New Westminster Beekeeping Association and education coordinator, says that honey bees need to be managed by beekeepers because they came from a subtropical climate.

“The reason [beekeeping] is a business is because of the population growth in North America increasing, urban sprawl increasing, crop management becoming consolidated in high-density crops like blueberry fields,” he says. 

“There’s not enough local insects to pollinate the food production that we need in North America,” Gibeau says. 

There are about 40 things killing honey bees in the world, according to Gibeau. Varroa mites are the biggest threat to honey bee hives, feeding on the blood of adults and developing bees and transmitting viruses to the colony. In almost every case, a honey bee colony will not survive a varroa infestation. 

KPU students examine the honey bee hives for mites and disease at the KPU Richmond farm. (Kyler Emerson)

Brian Campbell, a beekeeping instructor at KPU and founder of Blessed Bee Apiaries and Bee School, says when we talk about commercial beekeeping, “we’re talking about moving honey bee colonies from one crop to another to ensure pollination.” 

“Honey is maybe a side effect. With the way we’ve structured agriculture and the environment, [beekeeping] has become necessary,” he says. 

“When I teach beekeeping, one of the first things I tell people is that beekeeping is not about sustaining…or restoring ecology. It’s not about saving the bees. It’s about livestock management. Honey bees are livestock, like chickens.”

There was once no need for the pollination industry because of the number of native pollinators around. Farmers didn’t have to hire beekeepers or do the practice themselves to ensure the pollination of their crops. According to Campbell, the introduction of pesticides and changes in farming practices may be why beekeepers are now relied on. 

“That whole free pollination economy has collapsed,” he says. “Honey bees are very efficient.” 

“But in terms of supporting an ecology and a healthy environment, native bees are significantly better. And we should be doing more to protect native pollinators than we are.”

How wildlife and agriculture are threatened

Samm Reynolds, a graduate student from the University of Guelph, currently studying habitat loss and fragmentation for native pollinators in Canada, says that supporting native pollinators helps us avoid relying on one species to do all our pollination.  

Fragmentation refers to the state or result of being broken apart or divided. In this instance, it refers to pollinators’ flight paths being disrupted by habitat destruction, and they can’t find their way back to their hive or home. 

“Everything that threatens that one species directly threatens us in our food sustainability,” she says. 

“The contribution from native bees to commercial pollination is significant. And in some situations probably greater than the honey bee pollination, but there’s not a lot of studies done on it,” says Campbell. 

There are over 800 native species of pollinators in Canada, ranging from birds, plants, and insects like the paper wasp and mason bee. All pollinators have coevolved with local plants, meaning each species is accustomed to specific plants that grow in the regions they naturally inhabit.

“All these different pollinators are in decline worldwide, and unevenly. This is maybe the climate change challenge. How do we adjust our thinking in terms of this climate change?” Campbell says.

“A lot of [insects] have specific niches or specializations for certain crops. As the days get warmer earlier, we’re seeing flowers bloom a half a day earlier every year, about a month earlier than from 45 years ago,” says Reynolds. 

She says when this happens, the bees can become out of sync with the flowers that they naturally pollinate. As a result, some flowers go unpollinated, and some bees go hungry. 

In the north, there’s often not enough food in the bush to sustain bees for the year, Gibeau says. A honey bee colony needs about a three-kilometre radius, or 8,000 acres, of forage. 

Campbell says many bumblebee species cannot adjust to climate change, so their natural range is shrinking. 

“And when their range shrinks, that is a precursor to extinction,” he says.

“A lot of [pollinators] are temperature sensitive, so the hotter environment might not be able to sustain them anymore. And that’s a big fear and something we don’t think of as much when it comes to climate change,” Reynolds says. 

“If the range disappears, then the species in that range are going to disappear. That wouldn’t just be bees and other insects. It’d be the plants that live there normally as well,” says Campbell.  

Reynolds is focusing her research on understanding the needs of native pollinators. For example, because insects need a water source to survive, droughts negatively impact the local populations of insects that need water to reproduce and grow through their larval stages.

“I want to understand what their nesting needs are, what their foraging needs are, and what kind of habitats on agricultural land would be conducive to boosting their populations. Instead of bringing in livestock, like these hives of honey bees,” she says.  

A healthy honey bee hive at the KPU Richmond farm. (Nicole Gonzalez Filos)

“My goal with my research is to study how we can boost our native pollinator populations by actually designing our agricultural landscapes to support their nesting and foraging needs.”

She has found clear differences between each habitat type and can tell by the different numbers of insects she finds in her research traps located in different areas or across different farms. 

“[Another] problem is this urbanization. There’s lots of forage for honey bees, most of the good forage is in agricultural land and most of the agricultural land is high density right now and urban sprawl is pushing on it,” says Gibeau. 

Reynolds also says habitat loss is a threat but adds that fragmentation is a corresponding risk to pollinators, as well as pesticide use. 

“Neonicotinoids are in the media a lot right now, [questioning] if they are safe for bees. A lot of times when they do studies it’s like, ‘Well they didn’t die.’ But that’s not all we need to think about. If their navigation is messed up, if their flight patterns are no longer [the same] and they can’t find their way back to the nest, those are all problems.” 

She says her project includes looking at habitat loss and fragmentation. 

“I don’t know how to tackle climate change on my own, but at least I can think about how we can better design our landscapes so that we’re not cutting down all the habitats that these pollinators need.”

Pollinator researchers from Pennsylvania State University published a study this year that found that the most critical factor influencing wild bee abundance and species diversity was the weather, particularly temperature and precipitation. It suggested that addressing land-use issues alone will not be sufficient enough to protect pollinators.

“Because native bees coevolved with the native plants that are in this area, as the climate change changes, the relationship of those bees to the plants is inevitably going to change,” Campbell says.

Growing native flowers can support our local pollinators. (Nicole Gonzalez Filos)

Protecting native pollinators

In 2006, The Royal Society, a U.K-based science fellowship, published a study suggesting that native pollinator populations could benefit from adjusting habitats with the particular needs of different pollinating species in mind, like leaving dead wood which provides homes for cavity-nesting bees, and “providing suitable diverse floral resources in the local areas.”

Reynolds says planting wildflowers along roads and gardens instead of cutting grass short creates corridors for pollinators to travel through as a way to address fragmentation. 

“There will be so many flowers in one area, and then nothing for so long, and then [pollinators] can’t travel or find more resources,” she says.  

Campbell and Gibeau also suggest growing native plants. 

“We may not be able to provide the [ideal] climatic conditions across the province, but we could at least impact our backyards. We may lose huge tracts of wildlife and naturally occurring flora, but maybe backyards could be a mini conservation area for those species,” says Campbell. 

Some native plants in Canada that attract pollinators include Black-eyed Susans, bluebell bellflowers, lavender, and milkweed, which is a big pollen source for Monarch butterflies. 

“There’s not a lot of support for that pollinator diversity. We have to change that,” Campbell says. 

With hundreds of native species of pollinators across the country, Reynolds says there needs to be more awareness about those different species because many bees and flower flies are mistaken for wasps and killed. She says offering education about local native pollinator species is helpful in the work to appreciate and protect them.

“My optimistic vision would be to see us designing agricultural landscapes that would support our native insects that pollinate,” she says. 

“If we’re concerned about keeping pollinator diversity…beekeeping is not the answer. We need to protect the environment and untouched areas where that diversity is still intact,” Campbell says. 

“Be mindful of how important [pollinators] are to every three bites of food you take,” Reynolds says.