by Becky Starling
Pollination is something most of us take for granted; we are not even aware it’s happening around us. Yet, this simple action of transferring pollen from the anthers of a flower to the stigmas of another (or the same) flower is one that we all need to take more seriously. You see, without pollination there is no fertilization. And, with no fertilization there are no seeds and without seeds, well, you guessed it: no more plants. The US department of Agriculture serves us this warning:
‘It is an essential ecological function. Without pollinators, the human race and all of Earth’s terrestrial ecosystems would not survive. Over 80 percent of the world’s flowering plants require a pollinator to reproduce.’
With that said, the use of pesticides, as well as industrial agricultural practices and loss of habitat has contributed to a drastic decline in bee numbers. In her Phys.Org blog post Nicole Miller-Struttmann states that in North America managed honey bee colonies have decreased by 59% in the last 58 years and ‘many bumble bee populations in Europe and North America have gone locally extinct’. In 2016, it was widely reported that seven species of yellow faced bees native to Hawaii were added to the US federal list of endangered and threatened species.
A specific class of pesticide called neonicotinoids, which has had widespread use over the past decade, poses significant threats to our bee populations. These chemicals are used by seed companies on corn and canola seeds, as well as by vegetable farmers and ornamental growers. They are systemic, which means the pesticide infiltrates the whole plant, including the nectar and pollen. What is more worrying is that honeybees find neonicotinoid laced nectar especially alluring and once feeding on it show signs of inebriation and then have difficulty navigating and finding their way home.
Progress by government agencies is being made with the province of Ontario becoming the first place in North America to restrict the use of seeds treated with neonicotinoid pesticides and it plans to further reduce use by 80% by 2017. The city of Vancouver in British Columbia also banned the use of neonicotinoids in 2016 and the European Food Safety Authority has begun a review of the pesticides which could roll out a ban of three types of neonicotinoid pesticides throughout the EU. This is progress. However, it is only a start and in order to protect our pollinators and our food and medicine we need to find ways in which we individually and as communities can nurture our nectar loving amigos.
So, what practical steps can we as herbalists, garden growers and friends of the earth take to ensure the survival of our pollinators? Below are some suggestions:
· Grow organically. even organic pesticides such as rotenone and pyrethrum can be harmful to bees and other beneficial insects. Consider other pest control methods instead such as handpicking problem insects, soap sprays or using diatomaceous earth.
· Plant a diverse array of native plants with long flowering times or plan your garden so that flowers bloom during spring, summer and fall to provide food for bees and other pollinators.
· Create habitat. For example, not pruning dead tree limbs (providing it is safe to do so), provide water for pollinators to drink or install a bee hotel!
· Lay off the mulch. The majority bees are solitary and 70% of them nest in the ground to raise their young. Consider leaving areas of your garden mulch free for this purpose.
· Plant a cover crop. Consider planting a bee friendly cover crop such as red clover in your garden. Not only does this provide benefits for our pollinators and provide a harvest of medicinal plants but these nitrogen fixing plants also act as a green manure for your garden.
· Stay away from hybrids and cultivars. These are sometimes sterile and of little use to bees, native is best.
· Become a beekeeper. Many local colleges now offer beekeeping courses ranging from a basic introduction to keeping bees to more comprehensive Master Beekeeper certifications.
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Becky is a herbalist and owner/creator of Cedar Hill Herbs. Based out of the Okanagan Valley in the interior of British Columbia, she is passionate about organic gardening, providing herbal remedies for her community as well as creating organic skincare products from homegrown and ethically wildcrafted ingredients.