Before ripping out weeds, consider the bees

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We used to have a little fun at the expense of my late father, whose devotion to sustainable agriculture was overwhelmed each spring by a compelling need to manually root out every dandelion that popped up on his lawn in town.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 25/06/2022 (226 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

We used to have a little fun at the expense of my late father, whose devotion to sustainable agriculture was overwhelmed each spring by a compelling need to manually root out every dandelion that popped up on his lawn in town.

It was an impossible mission, as the open green space just across the street was a sea of yellow. We could only think that it gave him something outdoorsy to do on those nice spring days.

Given what we now know about the sorry state of pollinators globally, we might have worked a little harder to convince him to leave those dandelions alone.

Laura Rance Both domestic and wild pollinators are having trouble finding enough of the right pollens to support good health.

Dandelions and a host of other flowering weedy species are important sources of food for bees and wild pollinators, a reality that is often overlooked by landscape caretakers and farmers focused on the bottom line.

Studies emerge almost daily warning that our cultural penchant for manicured lawns and monocropped fields is threatening the pollinators we depend upon for our own survival.

Ian Steppler, who farms with his three brothers along the Manitoba escarpment west of Miami, lives with that conundrum daily.

Steppler manages 1,500 bee hives, while his brothers operate a 3,500-acre grain farm and 500 head of purebred Charolais cattle along with a commercial herd of 150 Angus.

He’s well attuned to the pressures of modern farming to focus on efficiency and profits. At the same time, he’s keenly aware of the nutritional deficits that is creating for pollinators; they cannot live on canola alone. Modern cropping practices call for removing any plants that compete with the crop.

“My brother calls them weeds. I call them bee food,” said Steppler.

“With the technology at our fingertips, we have managed to take the ‘natural world’ out of the production equation,” he said. “We are creating an imbalance on our landscape.”

Steppler was one of the speakers at a recent University of Manitoba webinar on the state of pollinators. He noted Manitoba beekeepers lost upwards of 60 per cent of their bees as last summer’s drought was followed up by a prolonged winter and late start to spring.

Not only are Prairie provinces among the top honey producers in the world, honey bees add about $2 billion in value to the crops other farmers grow by providing pollination services.

Domestic honey bees are only a small part of the pollinator species picture. Of the more than 20,000 known species of bees globally, only nine of them are honey bees. There are more than 250 species of bumble bees alone, Jason Gibbs, an associate professor with the university’s entomology department said.

Researchers agree that the varroa mite is the main stressor for commercial bee colonies. Once the parasite gets into a colony, it weakens the bees’ resilience. That exaggerates the impact of nutritional deficiencies, pesticides and other environmental stresses caused by modern farming practices.

And don’t forget climate change.

Gibbs said wild pollinators have survived for millions of years and are well equipped to adapt to changing or extreme environmental conditions.

“But what is problematic from a climate perspective is the prediction that these things are going to come more often — you get the extended droughts, the weird winters that become the norm rather than the extreme. That might cause trouble for bees,” he said.

“Climate change I suspect is going to overtake habitat loss as a primary driver of wild bee problems going forward,” Gibbs said.

The issues are well documented and supported by a growing body of science. Scientists are employing all the tools at their disposal to define the problems, measure the impacts and search for solutions. Even the manufacturers of pesticides have stepped up efforts to minimize the impact their products have on non-target species such as bees.

Ultimately, it comes down to changing the individual decisions farmers like the Stepplers or urban gardeners like my father make each and every day.

The Stepplers sow flowering forages such as clover in their cattle pastures, maintain sources of water and assign small parcels of the farm over to the biodiversity cause.

What will the rest of us do?

Laura Rance is vice-president of content for Glacier FarmMedia. You can reach her at lrance@farmmedia.com

Laura Rance

Laura Rance
Columnist

Laura Rance is editorial director at Farm Business Communications.

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