Toni Burnham, president of DC Beekeepers Alliance, checks on the health of a honey bee colony where DC Water keeps four beehives on the rooftop of one of its buildings, on , June 22, 2017 in Washington. (Washington Post photo by Jahi Chikwendiu)

‘Non-union’ bees make blueberries thrive — but only if they have a home

Pollinators are in rough shape in British Columbia and beyond

By Marc Fawcett-Atkinson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, National Observer

Jack Bates’ blueberries rely on “non-union” bees.

The Delta farmer is not alone. Blueberries, raspberries, and tree fruits are some of B.C.’s most important crops, worth about $370 million combined — and they all depend on bees, butterflies, moths, and other pollinators for a successful harvest.

“Pollination is always a struggle,” said Bates, who owns a 90-acre blueberry farm.

That’s no surprise. Pollinators are in rough shape in British Columbia and beyond.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature says that 16.5 per cent of vertebrate pollinators (e.g. birds) are threatened with global extinction.

In Europe, nine per cent of bee and butterfly species are threatened, and about a third of their populations are declining.

And in North America, bumblebees — a vital native pollinator — are estimated to have seen their relative abundance crash by 97 per cent, with the sharpest decline occurring in the past 30 years.

It’s a shocking decline, one driven by widespread pesticide use and habitat loss — byproducts of industrial agriculture. That system dominates North America’s fields and relies heavily on chemical fertilizer, pesticides, and monocrops.

“A number of features of current intensive agricultural practices threaten pollinators and pollination,” notes a 2016 reportby the FAO Intergovernmental Science-Policy platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Service.

That’s not good news for bees — or farmers. About 85 per cent of food grown globally depends on pollination, and in B.C., bees and other pollinators contribute about $538 million to B.C.’s agricultural industry.

Faced with declining bee populations, Bates and other farmers who rely on pollination have turned to semi-domesticated honeybees to pollinate their crops. They hire commercial beekeepers to truck several hundred hives of honeybees into their fields while the crops are flowering.

There are about 5,600 commercial beekeepers in Canada who operate roughly 480,000 colonies.

Once the field has been pollinated and the flowers turn to fruit, the beekeeper will pack up the hives, moving them to the next flowering crop, which is sometimes thousands of kilometres away.

It’s not an ideal system.

“When you have these very large and very simplified farms, farmers become reliant on bringing out these honeybees,” said Claire Kremen, a professor of conservation biology at the University of British Columbia who is leading a research project to increase pollinator habitat on farms in Delta, B.C. in collaboration with the Delta Farmland and Wildlife Trust.

The project aims to encourage farmers to plant some of their fields with pollinator-friendly flowers or to build hedgerows.

“It’s like honeybees are a kind of input to the farming system that needs to be purchased or supplied, whereas formerly, (pollination) was there and available.”

Beyond the cost of renting honeybees — Bates pays about $50,000 each year for roughly 425 hives — Kremen pointed out that they aren’t really up to the job.

Native bumblebees are better: They’re happy flying through the fields when it’s cold or rainy and have a trick to get pollen out of blueberries’ deep bell-shaped flowers.

“The bumblebee will grab onto the flower with their legs and, literally, they vibrate with their wings and it shakes the flower. And it happens that they do it at just the right frequency that it makes the pollen come out.”

But bumblebees, unlike their semi-domesticated cousins, don’t live in hives that are trucked around the country.

They stay in one place, rarely straying more than 10 kilometres from their hive, and need food throughout the year — not only for the few weeks blueberries are flowering.

Keeping them fed year-round takes biodiverse habitats like hedgerows and hayfields, Kremen said.

Those habitats that don’t come cheap in B.C.’s Lower Mainland.

Farmland prices in Metro Vancouver range from $50,000 to $80,000 per acre for parcels of more than 40 acres, according to a 2016 report by researchers at Kwantlen Polytechnic University.

“It’s very challenging for growers here in Delta,” said Drew Bondar, executive director of the Delta Farmland & Wildlife Trust, a farmland advocacy organization that’s a partner in Kremer’s research project.

“With land costs, (farmers) really need to farm most of their acres. Without actually knowing the economic benefits (of more pollinator habitat), it’s hard to justify taking land out of production.”

That’s where Kremen’s research, which is supported by a $161,050 provincial-federal grant, comes in. The project aims to put a dollar value on native pollinators’ contribution, helping farmers weigh the cost of investing in hedgerows and other pollinator-friendly habitats against bringing in honeybees and having more acreage under production.

There’s already evidence from other places that increasing pollinator habitat might, in fact, be a boon to farmers.

“You could see increases in yields anywhere from $8,000 per hectare to $14,000 per hectare,” Bondar said, citing studies that have determined the costs of pollination deficits — crops lost to bad pollination.

There are other advantages. Pollinator habitats also support pest-eating insects, helping farmers reduce their pesticide use, and help support agricultural regions’ overall biodiversity.

About a million species are currently threatened with extinction globally and are going extinct at a rate up to hundreds of times faster than the average established over the past 10 million years.

Increasing pollinator habitat alone won’t reverse this trend.

Still, in 2019, the UN Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity emphasized the importance of “promoting good agricultural and agroecological practices … and more integrated landscape and watershed management.”

Those include the kinds of management practices Kremen hopes her research project will help make more common.

For Bates, whose blueberry farm is home to some plots in the study, those benefits have already started to arrive — even without unionized bees.

“You go in the fields late at night, and you stand and watch and listen, and the bumblebees are still working.”

That’s a sign of happy pollinators.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Attorney General defends Kelowna Mountie involved in rough arrest

Tyler Russell filed a lawsuit against Const. Siggy Pietrzak in June of this year

Pedestrian struck on Highway 97 in Kelowna

Paramedics, fire crews, and RCMP are on scene

‘Perfect storm’ causes influx of black widows in the Okanagan

The region’s only venomous spider has come out in full force this year

AlleyCats Okanagan: Pet of the week

Mort is available through AlleyCats Alliance

Okanagan College expands ‘Wellness Wednesdays’ to all students this fall

Wellness Wednesday workshops are designed to be psycho-educational

B.C. reports 96 new COVID-19 cases, one hospital outbreak

61 people in hospital as summer ends with election

‘Unprecedented’ coalition demands end to B.C. salmon farms

First Nations, commercial fishermen among group calling for action on Cohen recommendations

Earthquake off coast of Washington recorded at 4.1 magnitude

The quake was recorded at a depth of 10 kilometres

Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

B.C.’s top doctor says she’s received abuse, death threats during COVID-19 response

Henry has become a national figure during her time leading B.C.’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

Suspected human remains found in burned out vehicle on OKIB land

Vernon North Okanagan RCMP hand over investigation to Major Crimes

Kamloops RCMP search for armed robber of pizza restaurant

The incident unfolded on Monday evening at the Sahali Domino’s store

BC Liberals must change gears from election cynicism, focus on the issues: UBC professors

COVID-19 response and recovery is likely to dominate platforms

Most Read