There was a time when apple trees did not exist. Neither almonds, nor roses, nor anything that used insect pollinators to reproduce.
In the Cretaceous Period (which ended 66 million years ago) conifers, horsetails, and giant ferns ruled the forest, depending on the highly inefficient method of wind pollination to find a “mate,” and produce the seeds of a future generation of plants. Our own ancestors were little more than rats at this time.
Finding a mate is more difficult for plants than animals, because they can’t move. So plants found a better strategy than wind pollination to reproduce. They made pollen that would attract insects. Pollen is a nutritious food, and when insects feed on it, some of the pollen hitches a ride on their body to the next plant that insect visits, fertilizing that plant.
Evolution favoured this more efficient means of pollination, and soon plants co-evolved to feature bright flowers, with perfumes, to further attract insect pollinators. Water lilies and magnolias are thought to have been the first; their white petals standing out crisply from the green surroundings. The addition of sugar rich nectar increased the flowers appeal still more.
The wasps that had hunted in the old forests took advantage of this new food source, and around 130 million years ago, the first bees appeared, descended from their carnivorous ancestors. While most bees remain solitary to this day, they began to adopt social behaviours 80 million years ago.
Now let us skip some tens of millions of years, and catch up with flowers and bees in the present.
The bee-flower relationship of getting pollen around has been extremely successful. It is estimated that 1 out of every 3 bites of food we eat come from a plant pollinated this way. We have come to depend on this bee-plant relationship, and we are in big trouble without insect pollinators, because of the food they make possible. The cost of manually pollinating crops and wild food sources would be astounding; insects perform this “eco-service” for free.
When we think of bees we think of honeybees (Apis mellifera), a European import from colonial times, but native bees and other pollinators like moths factor into the picture. All of our pollinators
are in trouble, and the main reasons are habitat loss, pesticides (especially neonicitinoides), and pathogens (the most deadly of which is Varroa destructor, the Varroa mite. Losing our pollinators means a loss of food production, food for our tables, and ultimately a loss of plant diversity and sources of nutrition.
These factors work together to cause what is known as colony collapse disorder in honeybees, the massive die offs that have been troubling bee keepers for years now. The same pesticides and habitat loss harms the almost 4000 native bee species in North America, and as their loss calls for more honeybee imports to do increasingly more of the pollination work in agriculture, the shipping of honeybees can help spread new pathogens to native bees in an already stressed environment.
The recent addition of the Rusty Patch Bumblebee to the endangered species list is an alarm call. Once common in North America, it exists now in small populations and has lost 87% of its range. Habitat loss is crucial for all bees and perhaps the single best thing one can do for them is to plant as many native, non -pesticide treated flowers in your yard or neglected public space as you have room for. Lawns are out of fashion anyway, so run with it. “Food Not Lawns” can mean food for pollinators too.
Newfoundland is in a unique and fortunate situation, as our honeybee colonies are free of Varroa
mite and several other major pathogens. We are one of only a handful of places globally that are not affected by the mite, and being an island helps us stay that way.
When Varroa mites enter an area, massive bee deaths occur and chemical treatments are necessary, harming honey production. The cost to beekeepers in medication and effort is significant. Hives were imported to NL in the spring of 2016 from Western Australia, amid huge unease and distress for the Newfoundland beekeepers.
“Although the preliminary tests indicate no diseases were imported, most of us feel like we dodged a bullet, rather than stayed out of harm’s way” says Catherine Dempsey, President of the Newfoundland and Labrador Beekeeping Association. Western Australia remains Varroa free, but in July 2016 mites were found in 2 locations in Queensland.
There is a need for conversation about how to protect the pollinators we have and need here, especially as we attempt to become a more food secure province, with more and diverse agriculture.