The spice of life

The Nature of PEI | by Gary Schneider

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More than ever, people are starting to realize the importance of pollinators. They used to be just pesky bees and wasps interrupting our outings that could sting. We knew that people raised bees to produce the honey that we love, but even that seemed out of the norm—people in hazmat suits standing in swarms. There were tales of killer bees, and even movies such as The Swarm and Mothra. Nothing but trouble, those pollinators.

Today, we are developing an awareness of the true values of pollinators. According to a recent UN report, “Pollinators affect 35 percent of global agricultural land, supporting the production of 87 percent of the leading food crops worldwide. Plus, pollination dependent crops are five times more valuable than those that do not need pollination.”

It also states that “the volume of agricultural production dependent on pollinators has increased by 300 percent in the last 50 years.”

At the same time, many of our pollinators are under threat, most likely from a variety of sources. Pesticide use, disruption of migration routes, habitat loss, and climate change being the likely culprits.

One positive outcome that is being seen in this province is the recognition that we can do something positive to help this situation. We see more and more organic farms and lawns. Pollinator gardens are springing up all over, including schoolyards, and we see some Island potato farms adding pollinator plants into their crop rotations. Individuals and organization—including watershed groups, Parks Canada, and the City of Charlottetown—are planting native swamp milkweed to boost populations of Monarch butterflies, a species recently listed as endangered by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada.

As we learn more about pollinators, it is increasingly clear that timing really is everything. Some pollinators have very specific needs, while others are generalists and make use of pollen and nectar over a long period of time. This was brought to my attention recently in a tour of the Macphail Woods Native Plant Arboretum. Since spring, I’ve been watching what pollinators visited different species of native trees, shrubs, and wildflowers. It occurred to me that having a variety is critically important as far as providing food for pollinators.

The beautiful purple-pink milkweed flowers had been the stars of the arboretum for over a month, full of many species of pollinators. When the flowers have been fertilized and had developed into seed pods, there was nothing in that area for the pollinators. I noticed that the yellow coneflower in another area now seemed to be the preferred flower for pollinators, but by the middle of September these too were more seed heads than flowers. Further down the arboretum, I noticed that the flowers of the Joe Pye weed were absolutely alive with bees, wasps, flies, moths, and butterflies. And it struck me that this an example of why biodiversity is so absolutely important.

If we only had oranges to eat, we would never get scurvy, but we certainly wouldn’t be able to live very long. The same is true for other creatures. If the Island was covered with swamp milkweed, it would be beautiful during the flowering season and we’d have tons of Monarchs. But what would everything else be feeding on? And once the milkweed flowers were gone, all the pollinators would go hungry. We need a variety of native species, but we also need a variety of plants that produce flowers at different times during the growing season. These lessons are all around us, we just need to pay attention to them.

Gary SchneiderThe Nature of PEI
Gary Schneider

Gary began writing for The Buzz in the May 2018 issue. He co-chairs ECO-PEI and started the Macphail Woods Ecological Forestry Project in 1991. The project demonstrates ecologically-sound forest management, with a focus on environmental education, conservation of rare plants, and the restoration of PEI’s native forest. He is an avid birder and lives in Tea Hill.