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Victoria farmer working to bring back buzz of native bees

Alarmed at honeybee colony losses that reached 80 to 100 per cent last spring on Vancouver Island, a Victoria farmer is abuzz over a program she says will boost native bee populations that could replace the threatened honeybee.

Working with the Victoria-based land trust, The Land Conservancy, as an agricultural program assistant, Nathalie Chambers is leading the just-launched Pollinator Enhancement Program. The provincewide plan aims to improve conditions for native bees so that farmers are not as dependent on the honeybee, the dominant pollinator, originating in the Mediterranean area and brought to B.C. in 1858.

"We need to restore the health and habitat of native bees," said Ms. Chambers, who farms the 11-hectare Madrona Farm with her husband, David, where they grow a large variety of vegetables, fruits and flowers. "This work is very, very important in terms of agriculture. Native bees are tailor-made for pollination."

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Yet the advantage of honeybees is that it's the only species that can be managed, cultivated and moved to where needed for pollination, said B.C.'s apiculturist Paul van Westendorp. "It's the proverbial workhorse."

Species like the bumblebee, however, have their own advantages. They are at least five times more efficient pollinators than honeybees, Ms. Chambers said, because they disengage their wings and get right into the flower.

And unlike honeybees, who don't emerge until the temperature is 9 C, bumblebees begin pollinating early-flowering plants as soon as February.

Vancouver Island has 45 native bee species that are part of B.C.'s 400. Throughout North America, there are about 4,000 native bee species, said Eric Mader, a pollinator program director with the Xerces Society, based in Portland, Ore. An entomologist, he's assisting Ms. Chambers with The Land Conservancy's pollination program, which includes 90 B.C. farms.

"Farmers are ideally situated to deal with pollinators because they manage large tracts of land," Ms. Chambers said.

One of her key messages to farmers will be to put away the pesticides.

Because emerging native bees are already foraging, she's advising farmers to seed their fields with flowering cover crops like clover, buckwheat and phacelia, which provide nectar.

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Native bees logically prefer native plants, so species like oceanspray, dogwood and Garry oak should be available.

Farmers should also stagger the planting of flowering plants so that a succession of food is available until bees retreat in the fall.

When plants, like sunflowers, have finished producing, they should be left standing to provide food and habitat.

Buffer areas of wild flowers are effective. In California, a 100-kilometre-long flowering hedge has been planted for the bees, part of the 20,200 hectares of new U.S. habitat created for native bees in the past couple years, Mr. Mader said.

Habitat is crucial. Seventy per cent of native bees are ground nesters, living in undisturbed soil, while 30 per cent live in trees.

In California, 30 per cent of the land bordering a farm was left natural for a kilometre. "The farm got all of its pollination needs met by wild bees alone," Mr. Mader said.

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A recent Canadian study found that canola growers made more money when they left 30 per cent of their acreage fallow. With native bees populating the wild land, canola yields on the remaining 70 per cent of the land were more than they would have been on the full acreage because of the increased pollination, Mr. Mader said.

"If we say the honeybee is all we need, that puts food security in a bad position. It's really difficult to keep honeybees alive in North America," noted Mr. Mader, author of several books on native bees. They're given "a cocktail soup" of drugs and pesticides to keep them alive.

Last year, despite treatments like Apistan and fumigillin to kill mites and bacteria, 21 per cent of Canadian honeybee colonies were lost, according to the Canadian Association of Professional Apiculturists. Nova Scotia suffered the biggest reduction at 42 per cent. In B.C., it was 24 per cent.

But for Ms. Chambers, who has lost count of time watching native bees buzz throughout her flower garden, "Bringing back the bees is as easy as one, two, three."

Special to The Globe and Mail

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