Campus News

Published by Communications and Public Affairs 519 824-4120, Ext. 56982 or 53338

News Release

November 16, 2006

Food Chain Faces Serious Sting, Says U of G Prof

The decline of the buzzing sound from bees may be music to some people’s ears, but a University of Guelph professor is part of a team of researchers that say shrinking pollinator populations in North America pose a serious threat to our plants, food chain and economy.

Environmental biologist Peter Kevan co-authored a new 300-page U.S. National Research Council report with 14 other researchers clearly showing that U.S. honeybees have declined some 30 per cent in the past 20 years. Bats, which pollinate the agave plant used to make tequila, and unmanaged bees, which pollinate forest berries and seeds for wildlife, are also in jeopardy.

“This is a huge problem because one in every three bites of human food depends on pollinators and, in nature, 75 per cent of all flowering plants depend on pollinators for fertilization,” said Kevan, who has been studying pollinators for more than 30 years and co-founded the Canadian Pollination Initiative.

“If the pollinators aren’t there, crop yields suffer,” said Kevan. “It’s simple supply and demand; if yields aren’t as high, prices of affected commodities go up.”

This problem has already surfaced in the production of blueberries in the Maritimes and almonds in California, he said.

The main culprits in the pollinator decline are habitat loss, pesticides and, for honeybees and bumblebees, parasites and disease.

The problem is worse in the United States than in Canada, said Kevan. “U.S. researchers could learn a lot from how Canada has managed to maintain steady honeybee and leafcutter bee populations.”

“The Canadian bee community is generally co-operative in communicating within itself,” he said. “It’s a community that’s very proactive in bee breeding and in controlling parasitic mites, which have caused the decline in the States.”
In Canadian forests, restrictions in pesticide use have also improved conditions for pollinators and, in turn, protected the fruit and seeds eaten by wildlife, he said.

The United States spends millions of dollars a year importing alfalfa leafcutting bees from Canada to pollinate alfalfa crops. “If it weren’t for the Canadian leafcutting bee industry in the prairie provinces, U.S. cows would be suffering for lack of quality alfalfa hay,” said Kevan.

The U.S. National Research Council report recommends more government support for stricter guidelines around pesticide use and importing bees. It also suggests establishing a network of pollinator monitoring projects among the United States, Canada and Mexico.

There are also simple low-cost practices people can implement in their own backyards that help promote pollinator conservation, said Kevan. “Planting wildflowers and avoiding highly bred horticultural varieties will provide food and nesting materials for pollinating insects.”

He’s hoping to set up a mobile pollinator garden that will travel throughout Guelph, Kitchener-Waterloo and Cambridge for public outreach and urban pollinator monitoring. “We want to take a pickup truck and make a garden on a flatbed and park it in strategic places in cities and see what we get. A similar project in San Francisco attracts pollinators to the mobile flowers within five minutes.”

Peter Kevan
Department of Environmental Biology
519-824-4120, Ext. 52479, or

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