Our planet is supported on the wings of bees, butterflies, skippers (flies that hover over flowers) and hummingbirds. These pollinators are threatened primarily by habitat loss, land degradation and both urban and agricultural pesticide use. Any time a natural area is converted to a subdivision, or a sterile lawn is managed with pesticides, these pollinators are heavily compromised, and often times killed.

Enter beekeeper Jeri Parrent. Parrent has a PhD in ecology and owns a farm on the Bruce Peninsula. Parrent is studying pollinators native to her region – such as the monarch butterfly, ruby-throated hummingbird, bumblebee and squash bee – with the help of
her community.

A\J: What is “citizen science” and where did you get the support to do the research?

Jeri Parrent: The ultimate goal of our pollinator observation and monitoring project is to partner with farmers, students and community members to document the important native plant pollinators in our regions, and to better understand their distribution and abundance in both natural and agricultural areas. We received a grant from the TD Friends of the Environment Fund in the spring to launch our pilot project this summer.

Citizen science projects generally involve scientists reaching out to the public to collaborate; usually that means collecting data that greatly extends the amount of information for scientists to study. In this case, we specifically solicited participation from ecological farmers because we are interested in comparing pollinator data from natural areas to that on farmland managed in an ecologically sensitive manner.

Why did you decide to undertake this project?

Dr. Thorsten Arnold and I are part of the Grey Bruce Centre for Agroecology, which is a small cooperative of rural farmers and research professionals aiming to combine practical farming, ecological research and educational outreach. We realized that although there has been a great deal of attention recently given to the rapid decline in honeybee populations due to neonicotinoid insecticide use on Ontario’s cash crops, very little attention was being given to the potential consequences for other native pollinators. In fact, we know very little about the diversity and abundance of pollinators that are native to our region.

Why are pollinators dying?

As with so many other species suffering severe population declines, there is not one single cause for the recent population crashes of many pollinator species such as the honeybee or the monarch butterfly. Instead, it is a combination of factors, including loss of habitat, both for nesting and for feeding. Many of the plant species that serve as critical food sources for pollinators, such as milkweed and goldenrod, are often eradicated as weeds. Also, through the movement of pollinators around the world by humans, we have introduced a variety of exotic pests and diseases. One example is the escape of diseased bumblebees from commercial greenhouse operations, where they are used to pollinate plants such as tomatoes, which has spread illness to native bumblebees. Lastly, there is the increased use of insecticides. These chemicals do not discriminate between the insect pests that they are intended to control and the beneficial insects that serve as plant pollinators. As a result we are seeing drastic declines and huge die-offs of honeybee populations.

Without pollinators the world would be a much less tasty place.

Why should we be worried about the health of pollinators?

Pollinators are critical for the success of so many of our food crops. They supply untold millions of dollars in free services to our farmers, and without them the world would be a much less tasty place. Furthermore, insects are the food source for many other species: insect-eating birds such as swallows and phoebes, as well as bats and small mammals.

What was the outcome of your pilot project?

We were able to partner with a number of ecological farmers from the CRAFT network (Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training), members from the Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario, and a number of other rural landowners and organic gardeners. We have also interacted with students at area schools and hope to expand and continue to work with teachers to integrate pollinator education into the classroom. As a pilot project, the data from the first year will likely be somewhat limited, but the project has been a real success in terms of developing a network of participants. We can now evaluate and refine our current protocols for next season. We hope to obtain additional funding so we can continue to provide the necessary training and support to our citizen scientists and to launch our observation and monitoring projects at a larger scale in 2015.  

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