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How wildflowers feed you

For many years native prairies and forests were considered “waste lands” because they don’t produce food for people to eat. But increasingly scientists are finding that natural areas are actually essential for our food production system.

A photograph of a field of yellow canola in flower.

Canola production is higher when wild pollinators are present.

In a recently published paper in the Journal of Pollination Ecology  (http://www.pollinationecology.org/index.php?journal=jpe&page=article&op=view&path%5B%5D=303) I documented which prairie wildflowers provide food for the pollinators of crop plants like canola. Canola, being a mass flowering crop, produces primarily pollen and some nectar to entice insects, such as domestic honeybees, and native bumblebees and sweat bees, into pollinating them. Pollination by insects greatly increases the seed set of canola. However, before and after canola flowers, its pollinators need something to eat. Enter the wildflowers!

A photograph of the yellow flowered rigid goldenrod plant.

In late fall bumblebees love feeding on the nectar of rigid goldenrod (Solidago rigida).

Wildflowers typically start blooming in late April and are in bloom until mid October, providing hungry pollinators with healthy, nutritious nectar and pollen to eat. Essentially, without wildflowers, the bees that we rely on to pollinate our canola crops would starve. And yet sadly these wild plants are being dug up, sprayed with herbicides and choked out by exotic European weeds. Intensification of agriculture is the main factor causing the collapse in domestic honeybee populations as well as the endangerment of native bees and other pollinators like the monarch butterfly. Wild insects that need prairie plants, such as flower and bee flies, also play an import role in the biological control of pests like aphids.

And so I would like to suggest that we begin re-wilding our province lest our pollinator populations collapse to the point that we can no longer grow canola, sunflower or strawberries any more. Protecting the remaining prairies, oak savannahs and tree bluffs is one important thing we can do. Another is to begin restoring the prairies alongside our farmlands. The Iowa Department of Highways has been replacing exotic weedy species in roadside ditches with native prairie plants creating beautiful stretches of highways that team with insect life and provide crop pollinators with habitat (http://www.iowalivingroadway.com/).  Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is a useful tool for controlling pest populations on croplands while minimizing the impact on wild pollinators.

A photograph of the bright yellow flowers of the hoary puccoon plant.

Wildflowers like hoary puccoon (Lithospermum canadense) provide bees with food before canola flowers.

Lastly, please look to your own yard. Are you growing plants that are visited by pollinators? If not, consider growing at least some native wildflowers as our pollinators are adapted to feeding on them, not introduced exotics. I know that butterfly gardens are popular but really it’s the bees and flies that are doing most of the heavy lifting when it comes to crop pollination. The more pollinators you nourish, the better your own garden yields of tomatoes, peppers, squashes, apples and berries will be!

A photograph of the white flowers of Saskatoon berry (Amelanchier alnifolia).

Saskatoon berries (Amelanchier alnifolia) need pollinators to produce optimal fruit set.

Still scared of getting stung by a bee? You probably shouldn’t be as we don’t have any “killer bees” in Manitoba. Our native bees are not aggressive (although some wasps and hornets can be) and will more than likely leave you alone unless you step on them or hit them. Also many wild bees are actually stingless! Check out www.prairiepollination.ca for more information on the wild bees of Manitoba.

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Dr. Diana Robson

Curator of Botany

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Dr. Robson obtained a Master’s Degree in Plant Ecology and a Ph.D. in Soil Science at the University of Saskatchewan. She has been working at the Manitoba Museum since 2003, conducting research mainly on rare plant and pollination ecology.