Earlier this year, I was lucky enough to get a seat in a two-day Pollinator Steward workshop, hosted by Pollinator Partnership Canada and the Island Pollinator Initiative. It was an eye-opener.

I came away with so much more respect not only for the celebrated honey bee, but also — and even more so — for its humble cousins, the wild pollinators of all sorts. Assuming most of us already have the basics of “pollinowledge”, I thought I’d share some fascinating and thought-provoking background information that was news to me.

For example, pollinators are not exclusively insects. Birds (like hummingbirds) and mammals (like bats) do it, too. And while up until 135 million years ago, all pollination was done by wind, today 90% of flowering plants require animal pollinators. Pretty much all of the fruit, veggies, nuts, oils, non-grain seeds, (and chocolate!) we eat, comes from animal-pollinated flowers.

This translates into 87 out of 128 food crops. Imagine farmers’ market stands or supermarket shelves without those! All that’s left would be corn, rice, cereal grains, potatoes, and a few other foods. Hmm, you may say, I know about fruit like apples and such, but what about vegetables? Well, some are self-pollinated — but even more veggies only produce, or yield higher, with the help of an animal pollinator. Plus, in order to eat carrots, you need to plant seeds — and no seeds without pollinated flowers!

Back to the “bugs”. By far the largest group of invertebrates, insects make up 80% of all animal life on earth. Insect pollinators include beetles, moths, wasps, flies, and butterflies, but it’s the bees and bumblebees who are most effective at the job.

1. The Honey Bee

Of the 20,000 species of bees worldwide, about 850 are at home in Canada. The well-known honey bee, while used worldwide on an industrial scale, is actually native to Europe. One of the first and most important things I learned during the workshop is that setting up a hive of honey bees in the backyard does not, in fact, help with ecosystem conservation.

Without a doubt their “products and services” are a monumentally important part of human life (yes – I, too, buy almonds, and I love honey!), but in ecological terms, honey bees cannot replace the native bees. Moreover, I heard the argument made that non-native honeybees compete with native wild bees for food, and pose a certain threat as carriers of diseases and parasites. The analogy to salmon farming and other intensive livestock management systems became quite obvious to me.

2. The Mason Bee

Okay, I thought, how about orchard mason bees then? I guess I still saw my role as a budding pollinator steward in building some kind of shelter to support just a few native “beneficial” bee species, even as it was dawning on me how much bigger the picture really is. Ample information can be found online, in books and at workshops on how to construct good nesting structures for solitary bees. As it happened, a friend was moving house and dropped off a mason bee condo in need of repair. I went to work, fixed the cracked roof, cleaned the box, discarded and replaced some moldy paper tubes, and set up the renovated condo on my back deck. I even placed a dish with mud nearby and kept it wet. But the results are mixed — as summer has come and soon gone, only a few tubes are inhabited, and most remain empty. Lots more to learn in terms of design, timing and placement of the structure.

And then there’s the need to empty the condo in late fall, cleaning and storing the cocoons, perhaps treating them with chlorine bleach… managing mason bees requires time, knowledge, and diligence. While not as labour intensive as honey bees, they nevertheless essentially become farm animals when we invite them to nest in condos in large numbers. And this density of bees has a flip side: Disease and parasites find them a much easier target. Turns out, the second most important lesson learned for me was that mason bee condos do not, in fact, help much with ecosystem conservation either. And as an organic gardener, healthy ecosystems are my thing.

3. The Wild Ones

Wild bees abound, once you know what to look for. They live solitary, short lives, often nesting in the ground in tunnels or in plant stalks, cracks, and cavities. They are docile. They hardly ever sting and carry no known allergens. Most of them fly for a few weeks only. They sip nectar and transport pollen but don’t store honey. They can be generalists or highly specialized. They definitely have an intrinsic value beyond what’s useful to humans. Wild pollinators — thousands of species of native bees and bumblebees — are key to food and ecosystem stability everywhere.

As the workshop progressed, a joyful realization began to emerge. The third most important fact is this: Supporting wild pollinators fits seamlessly with organic gardening and farming practices. Under pressure from “the usual suspects” including habitat loss, pesticide exposure, parasites and diseases, competition, and climate change, many wild insect species are now diminished or threatened. Consequently, what we need to do translates into a change in land management practices: In favour of habitat restoration, reducing and eliminating pesticides (particularly insecticides), biodiversity support, and oh yes, halting and reversing climate change. A tall order, yes… Consider the alternative though!

My own pollinator passion has been awakened. I now pay even more attention to adding native plants to the gardens I look after, and work to root out invasive exotic plants. I plan and plant for diversity and a long continuous flowering period. I tolerate more “weeds”. I make shallow water available in several places. I leave some areas of the landscape undisturbed. In addition to mulching and leaving plant litter and woody debris, I also realize the need for some open soil for the ground nesters. I let hollow plant stalks stand over winter. (After all, every summer bee we see flying, has been present through the previous fall and winter as an egg or larva in a cocoon somewhere!) I pass on what I learned when giving classes and workshops. And I appeal to my local municipalities to preserve the last fragments of wild Garry oak ecosystem left on Southern Vancouver island… even as development steamrolls ahead all over the place.

May your garden bee abuzz… and may you bee well!