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)

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

Cariboo Chilcotin MLA Lorne Doerkson (right) with his partner Shelley Wiese participated in an BC Liberals Caucus virtual oath ceremony Friday, Nov. 27. Doerkson was appointed opposition critic of rural development by interim leader Shirley Bond. (Photo submitted)
Cariboo Chilcotin MLA appointed rural development opposition critic

Newly-elected Lorne Doerkson said it will be an honour to work for all rural consituents

Yunesit’in Chief Lennon Solomon signs a memorandum of understanding with COS Insp. Len Butler. The five-year agreement was signed outside the Tsilhqot’in National Government in downtown Williams Lake on Nov. 30. (Rebecca Dyok photo)
Yunesit’in Government, Conservation Officer Service team up to address illegal moose hunting

Protection of moose a key focus of recently signed memorandum of understanding

A man wearing a face mask to prevent the spread of COVID-19 walks past a mural in Vancouver on Monday, Nov. 30, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Marissa Tiel
212 new COVID-19 cases in Interior Health over the weekend

A total of 490 cases remain active; 15 in hospital

Clinton fire hall, date unknown. Photo credit: Submitted
Clinton Volunteer Fire Department seeks funding for gear, equipment

More equipment needed after successful recruitment drive.

Fireworks display provided a colourful and sizzling Halloween for area residents. (Ken Alexander photo)
Ken Alexander: Fireworks provides colourful Halloween

Seven young ladies brought great joy to the residents on Green Lake… Continue reading

A B.C. Ambulance Service paramedic wearing a face mask to curb the spread of COVID-19 moves a stretcher outside an ambulance at Royal Columbia Hospital, in New Westminster, B.C., on Sunday, November 29, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. records deadliest weekend of COVID-19 pandemic with 46 deaths; more than 2,300 cases

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry provides COVID-19 update

Interior Health said its new toll-free line will help people connect to health-care services. (File)
Interior Health expands toll-free line to improve access to community care

By calling1-800-707-8550, people can be connected to several health-care services

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
B.C. researchers launch study to test kids, young adults for COVID-19 antibodies

Kids and youth can often be asymptomatic carriers of the novel coronavirus

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
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

A sign is seen this past summer outside the Yunesit’in Government office west of Williams Lake reminding visitors and members to stay safe amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (Rebecca Dyok photo)
B.C. First Nation leaders await privacy commissioner decision on COVID-19 information

Release of life-saving data cannot wait, says coalition of First Nations

MLA Jennifer Whiteside is B.C.’s new minister of education. She is speaking out against Chilliwack school trustee Barry Neufeld and asking him to resign. (Black Press)
New education minister calls on Chilliwack trustee to resign

Whiteside echoes former minister’s promise to look at options to remove Barry Neufeld

Peter Beckett. ~ File photo
Supreme Court of Canada to decide if it will hear appeal in 2010 wife murder trial

Peter Beckett has stood trial twice for murder in connection with the death of his wife, Laura Letts-Beckett

Tabor Home in Abbotsford. (Ben Lypka/Abbotsford News)
B.C.’s largest COVID-19 care-home outbreak records 19 deaths, 147 cases

Tabor Home in Abbotsford has been battling outbreak since Nov. 4

Most Read