Honey Week talk showcases native bees
By Darren Lum
Published Sept. 3, 2019
We can have a hand in helping all the pollinators, said guest speaker Susan Blayney, during her Native Bee Talk at Abbey Gardens Aug. 28 as part of Honey Week.
Blayney is a naturalist passionate about protecting native pollinators, and has taken the lead on having Kawartha Lakes designated as a Bee City. She provided an overview of bees, the challenges facing them and made it clear that everyone needs to help reverse the degradation of the environment and climate change.
There is a relationship between pollinators and the health of our environment.
“It’s about raising people’s consciousness, awareness. Making people aware what’s going on in your backyard. Is it really what you think should be going on in your backyard? Your backyard is not just your backyard. Your backyard is your community. It’s where you live. Your environment,” she said.
It’s important to learn from Indigenous communities how to connect to the natural world, she said.
“We put a wall up and say it’s us and the outside instead of we’re all part of the web of life,” she said.
This is a philosophy Blayney learned being part of a bee city, which is a designation recognizing communities taking steps to help pollinators. There are 30 bee cities in Canada.
Blayney didn’t believe the Highlands needed such a designation due to the lack of urban build up.
There are more than 400 native bee species in Ontario. Out of that total there is one honey bee. Blayney said we’ve become dependent on honey bees for agriculture.
“For example, the almond industry in California requires the services of something like 80 per cent of all the honey bees in the United States to pollinate its crop. In the late-winter, all the bees in the United States basically get trucked to California and then when they’re done their job they can go back to where they belong. That’s how dependent we are on honey bees,” she said.
Disease and pesticides are not a problem for bees only, it’s problem for us all.
“Native bee are important to the whole ecosystem. Not just for us,” she said.
Not all bees live in hives. Just honey bees. Bumble bees live in nests, numbering in the hundreds. These types of bees have a queen, which is the mother to virtually all the young. The first eggs are females so they can raise the young. Late in August, the queen lays male eggs, which is to impregnate the queen. It’s a unique characteristic of bees, which can choose the sex of their eggs.
The rest of the species are solitary bees where the females create a nest and lay eggs and then die at the end the season.
Bees fall into two categories when it comes to living arrangements: One, ground-nesters and two, stem-nesters. Ground-nesters sometimes use rodents’ old nests.
One ground-nester is the squash bee, which is vital to squash. There is only one in Ontario.
“If you are going to raise squashes and there are no squash bees around you will not get fruit,” Blayney said. “You can see other bees will go into the flowers they cannot effectively pollinate them. The squash bee does this little dance around the stamen and pistil to get the pollen it needs and that is what does it.”
The neonicotinoids, a type of insecticide, are often found in the ground, which adversely affects ground-nesters such as the squash bee.
Stem-nesters include mason bees and blue orchard bees. One mason bee, she said, can do the work of 18 honey bees when it comes to pollination. “Although a lot of orchards will encourage or work with beekeepers to have honey bees in their orchards, they will also plant native flowers for mason bees because of the fact they’ll get better pollination if the honey bee has the help,” she said.
The route the honey bee takes through the flower does not result in as much pollination as the mason bee. Mason bees are active in the spring. Their life cycle coincides with the fruit plants.
Thousands of insects pollinate, including butterflies, wasps and beetles.
“It’s important to keep this in mind when reading about pollinator decline. It’s not just about bees, it’s not just about honey bees,” Blayney said.
However bees are the most important pollinators because they evolve with the plants.
“The plants need them. They need the plants,” she said. “Bees evolved to have hairy bodies. They have little pollen pouches on their legs ... because bees need pollen and nectar to raise their young so that’s why they’re very busy out there. Other insects are at flowers getting nectar, but the bees need pollen balls to feed their eggs,” she said.
Among the common misconceptions is that bees make honey for people; in fact, they produce honey to survive during the winter.
Insects overall are struggling.
Blayney cited a German study published in the journal Plos One, which was based on the work of dozens of amateur entomologist s that took place over 25 years. Published in 2017, the results revealed that there was a reduction of 75 per cent of flying insects at 63 nature reserves across Germany.
Since 2012 when there was a massive die-off for bees in North America, it’s been downhill.
This raised the alarm for all insects, she said.
“We’ve had three bad years in a row now. Insects are being impacted. It’s the little things that are going [to affect them]. The building blocks of our ecology are eroding. The foundation can’t hold,” she said.
“The thing I feel optimistic about is when I talk to people. That people are concerned. This is something I keep telling my municipal government: people are concerned. Don’t think that you can’t make changes because people won’t vote for you if you don’t,” she said. Part of it is education, particularly of children.
People can add more native plants such as milkweed to their residential gardens.
“If you want to help bees that would be the most important thing you can do in your backyard. Even 25 per cent native is helpful. You don’t have to convert your whole garden, but getting rid of your lawn, or a good portion of your lawn, and reverting to helping it to a more natural condition ... the No. 1 factor of water consumption in the United States ... is lawns. Lawns use more water than agriculture,” she said.
Native trees such as the willow tree can also be helpful for bees, particularly during the spring. The willow is a source of pollen and nectar, which is a source of food for offspring.
Insects need water, so people can help by leaving out water by filling the lid of a garbage can with rocks for them to perch. Ensure the water doesn’t stagnate to avoid mosquitoes. Every two days change the water.
Chemical companies, which produce the insecticides, herbicides and fungicides for agricultural practices, are not inherently evil, she said.
“It’s just that they think they’ve got the answer,” she said. “They have an agenda.”
Although conventional contemporary farming employs chemicals, there are agricultural operations that are using sustainable practices.
It provides hope, but the “clock is ticking.”
As much as it helps for each person to take responsibility, it’s also important to let your local politicians know what you think.
“We really do have to ask our politicians and show them that we care about the environment. You can’t just keep betting on the economy and put all your eggs in the economy,” she said.
Climate change, Blayney said, is the greatest threat to bees and all wildlife. How plants are adapting to climate change can be detrimental to bees, which depend on being able to evolve with plants they depend on.
Although insects are effective at adapting, particularly with their ability to evolve in a short time, it’s still a challenge to keep up.
“They are trying to adapt, but you can only adapt so far so fast,” she said.