January 16, 2017

Plight of the pollinators

What green industry professionals need to know


“Save the Bees!” “Bring Back the Butterflies!” No doubt you have heard these statements a hundred times. Threats to our insect pollinator populations have recently dominated the media. The message is clearly being heard. However, like any hot topic in the media, someone with an agenda can twist the facts. Here is what you need to know as a professional in the green industry.

We rely on pollinators, such as bees and butterflies, for maintaining biodiversity in the natural environment, keeping our gardens bountiful for food production. Bees are responsible for pollinating approximately 80 per cent of flowering plants, including our favourite perennials and many staple agricultural food crops. Several factors are responsible for the decline and stress on pollinating insects, including our changing climate, pests and disease, the improper or prophylactic use of pesticides, and most significantly, habitat loss and fragmentation.

The horticultural industry has been targeted by some activist groups, suggesting the use of pesticides in horticulture contributes to the decline of pollinator populations. Yes, it has been shown that improper and prophylactic use of pesticides has affected bee species negatively. However, in horticulture, growers practice Integrated Pest Management. When a pest is present, pesticides are used only as a last resort if other physical measures are unsuccessful — and they are always administered according to the label. In reality, growers are actually impacting pollinator species in a very positive way, by supplying pollen- and nectar-rich plants.

Our profession creates and maintains beautiful outdoor spaces every day. These spaces provide crucial habitat for both foraging and nesting. Habitat loss and fragmentation has put enormous pressure on pollinators, especially native bees and butterflies. The green spaces and gardens our profession creates are very important habitats within cities. For example, over 364 bee species inhabit the Greater Toronto Area. Most are solitary, meaning they do not live in social hives, like honey bees and bumble bees. They cannot travel very far from their nests to forage for pollen and nectar. Most native bees nest in the ground in sandy soil; others nest in hollow reeds, or old insect tunnels in wood debris. 

Residential land comprises the majority of green space within cities, suggesting backyard environments can have a very significant impact when it comes to providing habitat. Our profession brings back yards to life, and turns them into oases, not only for us to enjoy, but for wildlife as well. The more conscious we are of pollinators’ survival needs, the more impact we will have. Slightly tweaking the types of plants we choose for garden designs is a rather simple solution. Choose native plants or plants that will thrive in your climate or zone, to avoid having to water and fertilize as frequently. Plan to have a continuous sequence of flowers in bloom from early spring to fall, and try to include flowering shrubs and plants, as they can provide a huge amount of pollen and nectar in the early spring when bees are emerging. Another suggestion is to choose single-bloom varieties over double blooms, so pollinators are able to access the nectaries. Planting host plants for butterflies is another great way to provide habitat, as each butterfly species lays eggs on specific host plants.

Considering pollinator’s needs when performing property maintenance could also have a very positive impact. Choosing to fertilize with compost, leaving patches of bare soil or wood debris for nesting, choosing to weed manually instead of using chemicals, as well as deadheading and pruning regularly to encourage new growth are all easy ways to make a difference.

Green industry professionals can make a difference every day. We should promote pollinator gardens and incorporate pollinator-friendly gardens into our landscape designs. It could be as simple as watching bees and butterflies, studying which plants they prefer, and incorporating those plants into your projects. Moving forward, our profession will play a very important role in protecting bees, butterflies, and other pollinating insects. For more information on pollinator-friendly habitat, visit http://landscapeontario.com/pollinator-friendly-garden.  
Cassandra Wiesner is a project coordinator at Landscape Ontario.