Four Ways Farmers Promote Pollinator Health

By Mel Luymes, environmental coordinator, Farm & Food Care Ontario

This week is pollinator week, and all across Ontario insects are briskly buzzing about their business. Pollinators play an important role in agriculture and, in turn, Ontario farmers play an important role in protecting and feeding them.

Sam McLean farms in Peterborough County, and grows 175 acres of strawberries, raspberries, pumpkins, and other crops that rely on pollination. McLean is careful in his application rates and timing of pesticides, and understands that farming is all about creating balance. “We have a lot of hedgerows here, a lot of natural habitat for bees and other pollinators, so we don’t even need to bring in honeybees to pollinate our crops,” he says. 

Video Resource: Fruit farms and pollinators work together  

Sue Chan is a pollination biologist with Farms at Work and she has been working with McLean for years. “What I’m seeing is many, many species of native pollinators here, so he is obviously doing something right,” says Chan. She points to the plants in the hedgerows: basswood, sumac, elderberry, wild raspberry, even burdock and dandelions are great food and habitat for native pollinators, she says.

On the other end of the province is Mary Ellen King, a fourth-generation farmer in Lambton County who operates several hundred acres of wheat, corn and beans. “Ten to fifteen years ago we started to enhance our farms with trees, hedgerows, wetlands and native tallgrass prairie,” she says. “We need the birds and the bugs and the bees, it all works together to make a healthy farm. I like to walk around the farm in the evenings, it just sings!”

Video resource: Farmers plant cover crops for pollinators 

Kathleen Law is a master’s student at the University of Guelph and studied the ways farmers can and do promote pollinator habitat on their properties.  Farms have historically been great habitat for bees, she says. “As farming has changed and field sizes have gotten bigger, it means that farmers need to be intentional about enhancing pollinator habitat. Instead of having fencerows play that role, they can create habitat around buildings, ditches or woodlots,” she says.

“As an environmental researcher, it was really heartening to see how much cash croppers care about pollinators,” continues Law.  “Often the missing link was having the necessary information and support to go ahead with pollinator projects on farmland.”

Video resource: Riparian areas & Hedgerow Management for Pollinator Promotion

In Ontario, there are many resources for farmers interested in enhancing pollinator habitat. The Environmental Farm Plan addresses pollinators and the Ontario Soil & Crop Improvement Association supports projects through cost-share programs like the Species at Risk Farm Incentive Program (SARFIP) and the Great Lakes Agricultural Stewardship Initiative (GLASI). In certain areas, farmers may have access to the Alternative Land Use Services (ALUS) program or Farms at Work.  Local Conservation Authorities can also be a great resource as well.

Law recommends that when farmers plant pollinator habitat, they should be more proactive in letting people know. “Put up a sign up that says who you are, what you’re doing and why,” she says. “It’s a great opportunity to demonstrate Ontario farm stewardship to your community and to society.”