May 032018

The Beekeeper’s Lament

“O bring me palanquin, All my companions have scattered”  Renée Sarojini Saklikar in “Listening to the Bees”

Several years ago, a Letter to the Editor appeared in this paper that struck me as particularly poignant. It was from a former Trent University student, Rick Fisher. In the 1980s, he was engaged in an intensive study of bumble bee ecology in the Peterborough area. After moving to New Zealand, he returned to Peterborough in 2013 for a summer visit. Rick wrote, “Despite intensive searches of all the areas where the bees used to be abundant, and despite favourable weather, I’ve found no evidence to support the existence of any of the bumble bees that were so common 30 years ago. To me, the woods and glades of beautiful places like Jackson Park now fill me with an aching sense of loss, and despair. Little did I know that my thesis studies would be more epitaph than ecology. What have we done?”

Tri-coloured bumblebee on sweet clover. Like honey bees, native wild bees face an uncertain future. (Drew Monkman)

Pollination Summit

Anyone paying attention to the degradation of our natural world is aware by now of the plight of native pollinators like bumble bees and of colony collapse in honey bees. It is a vexing problem with no single cause. It is happening by a thousand tiny cuts as a result of habitat loss, disease, parasites, climate change and pesticide use. It is estimated that one-third of our food items depend on pollinators. They also play a key role in biodiversity, as over 85% of the world’s flowering plants require bees, wasps, flies, bats and even hummingbirds for their reproduction. Any organism that consumes seeds, fruits or vegetables, is dependent on the services provided by pollinators. This includes not only human beings but countless other species as well.

World bee expert Mark Winston will speak at Market Hall on Saturday, May 5 

No one is more familiar with bee decline – and the lessons it contains for the future of human society – than Dr. Mark Winston, a world bee expert and Professor of Biological Sciences at Simon Fraser University. Mark is also a senior fellow at Simon Fraser’s Centre for Dialogue, which creates a space for “respectful conversations between diverse stakeholders, where mutual curiosity and collaborative inquiry act as alternatives to adversarial approaches.” As a former director of the Centre, he achieved international recognition by creating leadership development opportunities for students that contribute to social change in communities. Much of his work still involves advancing communication skills and engaging public audiences with controversial issues through dialogue. Effective public interaction and honest dialogue are especially important right now. Pending decisions on oil pipelines, fossil fuel resource development and carbon taxes threaten the delicate balance between economy and environment.

This weekend, Mark Winston will be the keynote speaker at a Pollinator Summit hosted by Peterborough Pollinators. In collaboration with local non-profits, businesses and community members, the summit will be a two-day celebration of bees, pollinator gardens,  community-stewarded urban beehives and, maybe most importantly, of dialogue. Dr. Winston will be speaking Saturday evening at 8 pm at Market Hall. It promises to be a presentation rich in storytelling, connecting to nature and learning what lessons bees have for humanity. A book signing and a Honey Fair showcasing the products of local honey producers will start at 7 pm. Tickets are $28 ($18 for students) and can be purchased at the door.

On Sunday, May 6, there will be an opportunity for people to visit some of Peterborough’s outstanding pollinator gardens and urban beehives. The public is also invited to participate in a community dialogue with Dr. Winston and local community dialogue practitioner Ben Wolfe. It will take place at Lett Architects on Simcoe Street. This “cross-pollination” dialogue, which is almost full, will bring together community members, beekeepers, gardeners and conservationists. It will explore the question: How do we empower citizens to protect pollinators and, in doing so, create, restore and celebrate natural environments?

For the past three years, Peterborough Pollinators has focused on this very question. The group has been working to encourage the creation of pollinator habitat including gardens of all sizes throughout the Kawarthas and on educating the public about the importance of pollinators. Not only do these gardens help pollinators, but they also bring greater food security, sense of place and community development to our neighbourhoods.


Drawing on a three-decade career researching killer bees, pollination and honey bee communication, Mark Winston is an eloquent and impactful communicator of science to the general public. He is that rare scientist who can take complex science and repackage it something a general audience can understand and appreciate. In addition to being a frequent guest on radio and television, Dr. Winston has had a distinguished career writing and commenting on environmental issues. His award-winning book “Nature Wars: People vs. Pests” has been recognized as the most probing and thoughtful discussion of pesticide use since Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring”. Winston is also the author of “Bee Time: Lessons from the Hive”, which won a 2015 Governor General’s Literary Award.

Most recently, Winston is the co-author of a new book, “Listening to the Bees”, with Canadian poet Renée Sarojini Saklikar. The book is something quite rare – an interaction between the poet and the scientist. It is a compendium of Winston’s research, accompanied by Saklikar’s poems inspired by this research. Saklikar, who is best known as the author of “Children of Air India”, has had a life-long interest in bees. She takes the poems in directions that connect to what the research was about and to her own Indian culture.

Listening to the Bees

Lessons for humanity

Like us, honeybees represent a pinnacle in nature of animal sociality. How they submerge individual needs into the colony collective provides a lens through which to ponder human societies. In “Bee Time: Lessons from the Hive”, Winston explains how bees process information, structure work and communicate. He also examines how corporate boardrooms are using bee societies as a model to improve collaboration, how bees have altered our understanding of agricultural ecosystems and how urban planners are looking to bees in designing more nature-friendly cities. Bees inhabit a world of chemical communication, which involves more than 40 different compounds. It is a world we neither see nor hear. Winston’s focus on bee communication has made him realize how poorly we humans communicate with each other – do we really see and listen? – and how little we understand the various channels we use.

Bees have other important lessons to teach us. For example, a typical honey bee colony contains residue from more than 100 pesticides. Taken singly, each is relatively benign, but together their interplay can have serious impacts. These include reducing the effectiveness of bees’ immune systems, which leaves them more susceptible to disease. What’s happening to bees as a result of pesticides is a useful lens to consider human health. Winston believes that the interactions of pesticides on bees can be compared in some respects to the interaction of prescription drugs on humans. Each, on its own, provides benefits, but when numerous drugs are used together, the interaction can cause harmful side-effects, particularly in patients who are already diseased-compromised.

As human beings, we cannot afford to ignore what the demise of bees tells us about our own tenuous relationship with nature. There is much to learn from bees in how they respond to the many challenges they face. In sustaining their societies, bees teach us ways to sustain our own. It is his hope that by communicating about the glory and the plight of all our pollinators, maybe we can make a positive difference in their future – and ours.

Winston also has much to say about wild native bees. In a 2014 New York Times article, he wrote that beyond honey bees, there are thousands of wild bee species that could offer many of the same pollination services needed for agriculture. Yet wild bees — that is, bees not kept by beekeepers — are also threatened by heavy pesticide use, by the destruction of nesting sites by overly intensive agriculture and by the destruction of diverse nectar and pollen sources from highly effective weed killers. Winston’s laboratory at Simon Fraser discovered that crop yields, and thus profits, are maximized if considerable acreages of cropland are left uncultivated to support wild pollinators. “The current challenges faced by managed honey bees and wild bees remind us that we can manage too much. Excessive cultivation, chemical use and habitat destruction eventually destroy the very organisms that could be our partners. There is a lesson in the decline of bees about how to respond to the most fundamental challenges facing contemporary human societies. We can best meet our own needs if we maintain a balance with nature — a balance that is as important to our health and prosperity as it is to the bees.”

In a recent interview on the PolliNation Podcast from Oregon State University, Winston describes his research and science communication as teasing around the edges of great mysteries we’ll never fully understand. “To me bees are unknowable, and I say that as someone who has done a lot of research… I love that mystery. I’ve felt that mystery ever since I opened my first bee hive. As I get older I find myself revelling even more in the unknowable.”

For more information on the Pollination Summit, please go to

Jul 292016

I thought this might interest you. With the decline in Honey Bees it was a nice surprise to find an active hive of wild (feral) bees (July 20).

Thomas J Northey, Little Britain, ON

Feral honey bee nest - Tom Northey

Feral honey bee nest – Tom Northey

Feral Honey Bees on comb - Tom Northey

Feral Honey Bees on comb – Tom Northey

Apr 082015
Bees at seed feeder - Sandy Reid - Apr. 3, 2015

Bees at seed feeder – Sandy Reid – Apr. 3, 2015

On April 3 in our birdfeeder, something was buzzing. There must have been at least 100 Honey Bees on the seeds!  Nice weather brought them to it I guess.

Sandy Reid

N.B.  I did a bit of research to find out what’s happening here:  “”When honey bees begin to rear brood in the hive nest, some bees will leave the hive in search of food. This typically happens on days when the temperature is above 50 degrees Fahrenheit. When no flowers are available to provide pollen, the foraging bees will turn to other sources they may encounter. Seeds that have been ground into feed for farm animal are a good example of a pollen substitute attractive to bees. Bees will even carry fresh saw dust to the nest for food. How much nutrition the bees get from sawdust is unknown. Honey bees are unable to carry seeds back to the hive and process them for food. However they will carry small grains of broken seeds and the dust, and would even empty a bird feeder trying to get to the food.”

Jul 032014

One of the joys of tuning into nature is discovering the many amazing organisms that exist right under our nose and often go unnoticed until someone points them out. When it comes to flying under the radar, there are few better examples than Ontario’s native bees. Susan Chan, a pollination biologist and expert on native bees, lifted the veil on this fascinating world when she spoke recently to the Peterborough Field Naturalists. Susan is the program manager of an organization called “Farms at Work” and is working with regional farmers and landowners to protect and encourage these wild pollinators.
As Chan explains in her informative handbook “A Landowner’s Guide to Conserving Native Pollinators in Ontario” (available at Avant-Garden Shop) bees are keystone species in that they have a disproportionately large effect on the environment relative to their abundance. Thanks to their role as pollinators, bees provide an essential link in the reproductive cycle of plants and therefore help to feed and sustain all living things. Simply put, they allow us to eat. Anything that consumes seeds, fruits or vegetables, depends on pollinators. This includes not only human beings but countless other species as well.
A few words about Honey Bees is a logical starting point to any discussion of pollinators. Native to Europe and Asia, Honey Bees are domesticated insects in much the same way that cattle are domesticated mammals. They have been bred over the centuries to serve humans. However, it now appears that much of the pollination work that is normally attributed to Honey Bees may actually be carried out by native bees and almost go unnoticed. Susan is therefore hoping to give our native bees the recognition, respect and protection that they deserve.

Common Eastern Bumble Bee nectaring - by Margot Hughes

Common Eastern Bumble Bee nectaring – by Margot Hughes

In order to tell the story our native bees, we need to begin with the story of pollination itself. Its purpose is simple: to allow plants to set seed in their ovaries. First, a little basic botany is in order. The anther, or male part of the flower, produces pollen. Pollen from wind-pollinated species like grasses and many kinds of trees is light and dry and therefore easily dispersed through the air. However, pollen from insect-pollinated plants like fruits and vegetables is oily and heavy, so that it will adhere to the bodies of pollinators. The female part of the flower consists of an ovary, which contains ovules. The ovary is connected by the style to a sticky structure called the stigma. At the base of most flowers there is also a nectar-producing organ called a nectary.
Simply put, pollination is the transfer of pollen from the anther to the stigma, usually between two different plants of the same species. When a pollinator such as a bee brushes up against the stigma, pollen on its body may adhere to the stigma’s sticky surface. The pollen grain will then grow a tube down through the style to the ovary, where it fertilizes an ovule and produces a seed. Not surprisingly, there is a payoff for the insect, too. Nectar and pollen provide food for the bees – both for the adults and the larvae in the nest.
The best insect pollinators are the hairy ones, and the hairiest of the insects are the bees. Their hairs pick up and hold on to pollen. Our native bees go one step further, however. They offer the added benefit of being active when Honey Bees – the “divas” of the bee world – don’t dare set foot outside the hive. Many of our native bees, on the other hand, are out at the crack of dawn, during cool weather and sometimes even in when it is raining. For example, squash bees become active at 4 a.m. when squash flowers open!

So, who are the native bees? In eastern Canada, they are represented by some 400 species, grouped into five families. Of these, about 300 are important as pollinators. Unfortunately, most do not have common names, although they live and forage in fields and gardens throughout the Kawarthas. The five families are the Halictidae (sweat and pearly-banded bees), the Apidae (squash, carpenter and bumble bees), the Colletidae (cellophane and masked bees), the Andrenidae (miner bees) and the Megachilidae (leafcutter, orchard and mason bees). The majority of these bees are solitary, which means there is only one female per nest. In other words, most do not live in colonies. Nor do they sting, swarm or make honey. Bumble bees are the one exception. Numbering about 15 different species in Ontario, they can deliver a sting and they are colonial. However, the colonies only exist for one breeding season, and the amount of honey the bees make is minimal.

Halictid bee on Sundrop blossom - Drew Monkman

Halictid bee on Sundrop blossom – Drew Monkman

Although native bees can be found most anywhere there are flowers, identification to the species level is challenging. The only identification guide that presently exists is limited to the bumble bees. Entitled “Bumble Bees of the Eastern United States”, you should be able to download the PDF by going to Alternatively, you can contact Chan at and she will send you the PDF herself. This guide applies equally well to Ontario. Even the bumble bees, however, can be hard to identify. One reason is sexual dimorphism, which means that the male and female are often quite different in size and colouring. Queen bumble bees are large -think thumb-sized – and are the ones you see flying about in the spring. The small bumble bees that are so common in July and August are workers and are much smaller. Probably the most common species in the Kawarthas is the Common Eastern Bumble Bee. The thorax and thorax end of the abdomen are both pale yellow in colour. The rest of the body is black. You should also watch for the beautiful Tri-colored Bumble Bee. Two orange stripes on the abdomen make it quite distinctive.
For the other native bees, Chan suggests learning to identify them to the family or, in some cases, the genus level. Here are three easily recognizable varieties to get started. Most Halictidae bees are very small, often no larger than two grains of rice. Luckily, some are metallic green and therefore quite distinctive. I was able to find these quite easily in my perennial garden. If you grow squash, zucchini or pumpkins, you will likely see squash bees. In the afternoon, when the flowers are wilted, gently open the flower with your fingers. If you find a bee inside, it will be a male squash bee. Chan guarantees that “once you’ve met them, you’ll fall in love!” Approximately the size of Honey Bees, squash bees are grey-striped and have a somewhat flattened abdomen. In late summer and fall, you should be able to see miner bees on sunflowers and goldenrod. They have extremely hairy back legs and therefore end up with “pantaloons” of pollen on their legs. An excellent collection of native bee photos can be found at Look under the Apoidea to find bees. BeeSpotter is another useful on-line resource for photographs. Go to

Tri-colored Bumble Bee on goldenrod - Drew  Monkman

Tri-colored Bumble Bee on goldenrod – Drew Monkman

Native bees can be found most anywhere there are flowers. This includes perennial gardens and sunny meadows. Raspberry patches can be especially good, as can sunflowers. A great place to see bumble bees is at a blueberry farm in mid-May. Kelly’s Berry Farm north of Bancroft is one such location. The tallgrass prairie and Black Oak savanna at Alderville First Nation also has a great diversity of bumble bees.
Remember, too, that there are many bee look-alikes on flowers. Flower flies, for example, can look surprisingly bee-like. However, they have only two wings and hold them at an angle out from the body. Bees, on the other hand, have four wings. They are folded over each other and fit neatly across the back. Unlike flies, bees are also hairy. As for wasps, their bodies are narrow-waisted, slender and smooth.
Next week, I will look at the life cycle of native bees, why they are vulnerable and how landowners can protect and encourage these wild pollinators.



Sep 192013


Living here in the beautiful Kawarthas, we take for granted the familiar charm of rural hedgerows and the trees, shrubs and wildflowers that grow along them. Hedgerows – or fencerows as many people call them – are a common feature of agricultural lands, especially in the southern part of our region.  On an esthetic level, they provide a picturesque border to fields and, in doing so, contribute greatly to our sense of place. Just as importantly, hedgerows also provide important ecological services, including food and nesting sites for pollinating insects such as our native bees. Unfortunately, there is a war of attrition being waged on these important corridors of green in many parts of Ontario and increasingly so in the Kawarthas. Little by little, hedgerows are disappearing as the economics and technologies of farming change.  To see what this destruction  looks like in the extreme, one only has to take a drive through the expansive, hedgerow-less fields of Essex County and Chatham-Kent in southwestern Ontario.

Healthy hedgerow

Healthy hedgerow

Hedgerows and bees

Ontario is home to numerous species of native bees, most of which go overlooked. These insects are not the familiar European Honey Bees, nor are they wasps or other aggressive stinging insects. Native bees come in a wide range of sizes and colors, from tiny sweat bees less than a quarter of an inch long to much larger bumble and carpenter bees. Some aren’t even bee-like in appearance but may be dark brown, black, or metallic green and blue. Many species look like flying ants or flies. Most of our native bees are solitary, with each female creating and provisioning her own nest – often in the ground – without the help of sister worker bees.

                Because healthy hedgerows are home to a rich plant community, they provide crucial bee habitat. For example, hedgerow shrubs such as cherries, sumacs, lilacs, serviceberries, dogwoods, hawthorns and wild apple trees are a reliable and plentiful source of nectar and pollen in May and June, a time of year when many other plants have not yet flowered.   Along the edges of the hedgerow, you can usually find other important bee plants such as raspberries, blackberries, goldenrods, asters, clovers, milkweeds as well as numerous so-called weeds, many of which are bee magnets, too. Dandelion and coltsfoot, for example, are especially important to bees in early spring.

Hedgerows also provide essential nesting habitat. Dead trees, rock piles and Groundhog burrows – all common components of hedgerows – are especially important. Solitary bees, for example, actually nest in wood, while bumble bees often choose rodent burrows or the cavities created by rock piles to set up home. The pithy stems of blackberries and raspberries are a common nesting site for yellow-faced bees and small carpenter bees. A large number of birds also nest in hedgerows. These include Wild Turkeys, Eastern Kingbirds, Brown Thrashers, Gray Catbirds, Song Sparrows and Indigo Buntings – to name a few.  Birds and mammals also use hedgerows as corridors for moving through the countryside between isolated woodlots, since many species hesitate crossing an open field. This is of particular importance in areas where farming is more intensive, such as southern Peterborough County.

Hedgerows provide other services to farmers and rural residents, as well. They help to prevent loss of soil from fields, either through reducing wind erosion or through acting as a barrier to water-borne run-off. There is also research to show that removing fencerows and their attendant vegetation allows wind-borne, fertilizer-laden topsoil to blow into water bodies and thereby promote algae growth. Let’s not underestimate the cultural and aesthetic services that hedgerows provide, either. With their cedar-rail fences and frequent rock piles, they tell the story of the countryside and of our farming heritage. They also are an important element of the characteristic structure and pattern of the landscape in much of the Kawarthas and thereby help to root us in this particular part of Ontario. They shield us, too, from unsightly development and protect privacy.



Although most of the staple grains (e.g., wheat, oats and corn) in human and animal food systems are wind-pollinated, the fruits, nuts, oilseeds, and many of the vegetables require a pollinator other than wind to maximize production and quality. In the past, agriculture has largely ignored wild pollinators and has depended almost entirely upon domesticated, non-native Honey Bees to provide pollination services for the crops grown on farms. However, as we know, Honey Bee populations are declining sharply. It is therefore critical to look to a more diverse population of pollinators to meet the pollination requirements of agricultural crops and especially to the native wild bees.

In a sweeping, 19-country study that came out last February entitled “Wild Pollinators Enhance Fruit Set of Crops Regardless of Honey Bee Abundance,” it was shown that wild pollinators are able to provide all of the pollination needed IF farmers cultivate and protect habitat. The authors found that wild insects pollinated crops more effectively; an increase in wild insect visitation enhanced fruit set by twice as much as an equivalent increase in Honey Bee visitation; and that pollination by managed Honey Bees supplemented, rather than substituted for, pollination by wild insects. The results suggest that new practices for integrated management of both Honey Bees and diverse wild pollinators will enhance crop yields. The take-away message from the study is that wild pollinator habitat needs to be conserved, especially at a time when pollinators are already in a downward spiral as a result of other threats such as pesticides. For more information on what landowners can do for pollinators, Google “A Landowner’s Guide to Conserving Native Pollinators in Ontario.”

Field stripped of hedgerows near Keene

Field stripped of hedgerows near Keene


Unfortunately, there is a growing trend towards removing traditional hedgerows. In Otonabee-South Monaghan Township, for example, some landowners are either removing hedgerows completely or clearing out the shrubs, grasses and wildflowers that grow there.  In the latter cases, they are simply leaving the large trees. According to one area resident, “This past spring, the chainsaws and excavators were going full-time, and it’ll start up again after the harvests. It’s horrifying.” Some local fields, such as many of those along County Road 2, west of Keene, are starting to look like the Canadian prairies.

Why is this happening? Removing hedgerows increases the size of the fields, making the sowing and harvesting of crops easier, faster and cheaper, especially for large, modern machinery. It can therefore increase yield and profits in the risky business of agriculture. However, it’s not just the bottom line that drives modern farming practices.  There are a host of other factors – demographic, social and technological – that compel farmers to make the most effective use of their time and to offset risk.

In the European Union, the Common Agricultural Policy offers greater incentives to farmers to protect and restore natural landscape features such as hedgerows. These incentives are in the form of subsidies for “protecting the environment.” If similar incentives existed in Ontario, maybe we would see less destruction.

Although traditional hedgerows still dominate on most farms in the Kawarthas, this may not be the case within a few years. Hopefully, rural landowners who might otherwise just go along with the trend towards removing hedgerows will have second-thoughts. Given all of the services that hedgerows provide – and even if they present a short-term inconvenience –  protecting them is one do-able step toward long-term agricultural sustainability.


Side-bar: Climate change rally

In order to get the attention of our politicians – and our neighbours – to the urgent problem of climate change, a Climate Change Rally will be held on Sunday, September 22,  from 11 a.m. until noon, at Millennium Park (at the corner of Water and King streets) in  Peterborough.  The Rally will feature great local speakers and an information tent.  Washboard Hank will inspire the children. Other musicians, such as Al Black, will join Hank to help all of us sing a global climate change song, The Rally organizer is the Peterborough chapter of For our Grandchildren (4RG).  Please consider giving an hour of your time to come to this important event and show our politicians that we want to see action NOW.