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Six Facts About Pollinators You Won't Bee-lieve

From bees to bats, pollinators are key to a stable food supply

By Caitlin Crawshaw, ’05 BA(Hons)

June 21, 2023 •

With the growing season in full bloom, pollinators are hard at work everywhere, from backyard gardens to mountain meadows. You’ll likely notice the venerated honey bee — a species imported from Europe in the 17th century — scooting from flower to flower, but that’s only the tip of the hive. “There are hundreds of native species of bee, even in Canada, and they are important in all sorts of ways for pollination of crops and native vegetation,” says Peter Kevan, ’68 MSc, ’70 PhD, an internationally renowned ecologist with expertise in pollination, agriculture and conservation.

Bees are the best known and most efficient of the pollinators, which includes anything that carries pollen from the stamen (male part) of a flower to the stigma, or female part. This movement of pollen is necessary to fertilize the plant to produce fruit, seeds and new plants. 

Other creatures play an important role in pollination, too. Wasps, flies, butterflies, moths, ants and beetles also help flowering plants reproduce, as do some species of birds and bats.

Over his 55-year career, Kevan has focused on the interactions between insect pollinators and plants, and pioneered a field called apivectoring, by which bees disseminate biological control agents to manage pests on crops. Between 2009 and 2014, the University of Guelph professor emeritus, who is working in the field, spent five years as scientific director of the Canadian Pollination Initiative, a groundbreaking research project examining pollinators and pollination systems across Canada.

He shares six interesting facts about the secret world of plant pollination.

1. Pollinators are hired help

It’s estimated that more than 70 per cent of the flowering plants on Earth need pollinators to produce fruit and seeds, including many of the crops we rely on for food (think canola, alfalfa, many tree and berry fruits and certain vegetables). Because honey bees aren’t picky about where they forage for nectar, hives of managed bees are placed near fields of crops or greenhouses to encourage pollination. 

2. Bees can carry more than pollen

Plant pathogens, like fungi and insect pests can ravage crops if left unmanaged, but conventional pesticides can harm other plants and animals — including bees — when used in large quantities. Apivectoring, created by Kevan and University of Guelph colleague John Sutton, uses honey bees and bumblebees for targeted distribution of biological control agents. It involves placing trays full of dusty or granular, bee-friendly pesticides at the mouth of a hive; as bees head out for work, they collect the formulated material on the hairs of their bodies and distribute it within flowers, just as they do with pollen, nipping infestations (literally) in the bud.

3. Honey bees aren’t always the best bee for the job

Though hives of honey bees are often added to farming operations to pollinate crops, it doesn’t mean they do the job better than native bees. Kevan notes that there are about 70 species of indigenous bees that evolved to pollinate blueberry bushes in the Maritime provinces alone. As “specialists,” these species are likely more efficient than honey bees, which, while still employed in blueberry patches, are outshone by their wild cousins. Wild bees are also more important than honey bees in pollinating pumpkin and squash fields. 

4. Research on non-bee pollinators is scarce

The work of native, non-bee pollinators, especially in agriculture, hasn’t been as well-studied as it should be, says Kevan, who is also a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. Researchers know that flies are helpful in pollinating canola, for instance, but little is known about how they pollinate or how prolifically they do so. The same is true for moths, which are harder to study since they mostly pollinate plants at night. Kevan would like to see more research in this area. “Having a mix of pollinators, both wild and managed, would likely improve food production and sustainability in Canada.”

5. Pollinators thrive in cold climates, too

As a PhD student in the 1960s, Kevan conducted research in the Canadian Arctic showing that, despite the chilly climate, plenty of insects — especially flies — were hard at work pollinating plants. “Contrary to commonly held belief at the time, some of the most common plants in the Arctic tundra actually require cross-pollination by insects,” he says.

6. Pesticides should be used carefully

One of the biggest threats facing pollinators is the wide use of pesticides in agriculture and, previously in forestry. The relatively new neonicotinoids — insecticides chemically related to nicotine that cause paralysis and death — seem to have devastated bee populations. “It’s not that we never want to use these sorts of chemicals,” says Kevan. “It’s that they’re being used rather indiscriminately and spread over the landscape in vast amounts when they may not, in fact, be needed.” There’s no single answer to this problem, but he argues that greater intervention is needed to curb the widespread use of these chemicals and protect the Earth’s pollinators. 

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