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Pollinator Recovery

Pollinator Recovery

Pollinator recovery?
A critical step!

Pollinators, such as bees, butterflies, moths and flies, play critical roles in ecosystems and in the production of our food. If you’ve eaten an apple or worn a comfy cotton t-shirt, you can thank a pollinator for transporting pollen between those plants’ blossoms.

Despite the important services they provide, the populations of many wild pollinators are declining, largely due to changes in their habitat, intensive agricultural practices and pesticide use, invasive species, disease and climate change. The good news is that much can be done to bring pollinator numbers back. We can create habitat by planting pollinator-friendly plants along roadsides, in parks and along utility corridors. We can support sustainable agricultural practices, such as crop rotation and retaining hedgerows. We can ban the use of harmful pesticides. These actions promote “pollinator recovery” and require attention from industry, individuals and governments at all levels.

What can the Governments of Canada Do?

Governments urgently need to provide the leadership necessary to recover pollinator numbers and diversity. Through legislation, policy, strategies and plans, they have the power to enshrine pollinator protection and recovery into our society. Here in Canada, many municipal, regional and provincial governments are taking action. For example, the cities of Vancouver and Montreal and the provinces of Quebec and Ontario have all implemented bans against or reductions in the use of harmful neonicotinoid pesticides. The city of Calgary has launched several pollinator-friendly projects, including a bee and butterfly boulevard consisting of wildflowers and a variety of nesting habitats. The city of Toronto released a Pollinator Protection Strategy that, among many initiatives, provides grants to community members to create pollinator habitat. Ontario has a Pollinator Health Action Plan committing the provincial government to monitoring the health of wild and managed bee populations.

While municipal, regional and provincial governments lead the charge in pollinator recovery across the country, is the federal government keeping pace? As a party to the Convention on Biological Diversity, Canada has committed to support the development of national plans and strategies for the conservation of pollinator diversity. The CBD’s draft Pollinator Initiative Plan of Action for 2018 to 2030 encourages governments to consider four objectives when tackling protection and recovery. Canada has taken steps toward some of these objectives, but on others has a long way to go.

Here are the CBD objectives and how Canada measures up:

Enable policies and strategies that protect pollinators and their habitats

For example, enable policies and strategies that support sustainable agricultural practices, such as reducing the use of pesticides, using more biological pest control and diversifying agricultural landscapes. Canada has a national pollinator plan to manage agricultural bees, but there is no similar plan to guide the protection and recovery of the hundreds of wild pollinator species that call Canada home. Other countries have developed national pollinator protection plans and strategies, including England (The National Pollinator Strategy), Ireland (The All Ireland Pollinator Plan) and the United States (The National Pollinator Health Strategy). Though Health Canada has recently announced restrictions to the use of three neonicotinoid pesticides, the restrictions will not take effect until 2021 and they were put in place due to impacts on aquatic insects rather than pollinators. When armed with the same scientific information, twenty-eight countries in the European Union decided to ban the outdoor use of neonicotinoids.

Implement pollinator-friendly practices at field level

This means integrating management practices across sectors to secure pollinator-friendly habitats on the ground. Governments are advised to work with farmers, beekeepers, foresters and land managers to co-design practices that are pollinator-friendly for farms and other ecosystems. Governments should actively promote the connectivity and restoration of pollinator habitats, as well as sustainable bee keeping and health. In 2014, the federal agency Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada published Native Pollinators and Agriculture in Canada, a manual for farmers and ranchers to learn about pollinator biodiversity and how to protect it on their land. It’s a step in the right direction, but meaningful change may require more incentive. In some parts of the world, pollinator protection is legislated. The German state of Bavaria has announced they will pass a pollinator-protective law that requires 20 per cent of agricultural lands to meet organic farming standards by 2025, before reaching 30 per cent by 2030. Ten percent of green space in Bavaria will be turned into flowering meadows, and rivers and streams will be better protected from pesticides and fertilizers.

Increase awareness, knowledge sharing and improve valuation tools for decision-making

This means promoting education and awareness of the role and value of pollinators and their habitats and providing practical actions the public can take to reduce and prevent pollinator decline. It also means supporting businesses in understanding not just the ecological value of pollinators, but also in assessing the economic value of pollinators and risks associated with their decline. While Canada has undertaken economic valuations of managed Honey Bee colonies, little is known about the value of wild pollinators. This is due in part to the fact that Canada, like many nations, is still learning about the pollinator species that live here. And we know even less about how pollinators are faring than we do about their diversity. There is no government management program to monitor populations of pollinators anywhere in Canada. In the meantime, farmers, ranchers and others in the agricultural industry can refer to Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s Native Pollinators and Agriculture in Canada, a manual for learning about pollinator biodiversity and how to protect it on their land.

Foster Monitoring, Research and Assessment

Canada, like many other countries, has numerous gaps in our knowledge of the country’s pollinators. How many species are there? How are their populations faring? Which plants (both wild and agricultural) do they serve? To answer some of these questions, in addition to funding researchers directly, the National Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada created the Canadian Pollination Initiative – a five year (2009 to 2014) strategic network made up of 44 researchers at 26 institutions across the country. The Initiative published over 130 publications that (1) helped identify and describe pollinator species across the country, (2) examined ways to fight viruses and parasites that harm bees and looked at better management of commercial bees, (3) conducted research to learn more about plant and wind pollination and furthered ecological knowledge about pollinators, (4) looked at global factors affecting bee declines, and (5) even looked at bee economics. The Initiative ended in 2014, though researchers at labs across the country (e.g. University of Guelph, ON and Simon Fraser University, BC) continue to work on pollination science. A federal monitoring program could help to further coordinate some of this research to help Canada meet the objectives of the CBD.

We Can’t Fix What We Don’t Measure: Canada Needs a Federal Monitoring Program

It’s widely recognized that many gaps exist in our knowledge of the world’s pollinators – and what we do know isn’t good news. By some estimates, 40 per cent of pollinators – particularly bees and butterflies – are facing extinction. We don’t know how serious the problem is in Canada overall, because we don’t measure it at a national or provincial level. Few research projects across the country have focused on long-term trends in pollinator abundance. The government of the German state of Bavaria enacted its law protecting pollinator habitat because long-term data showed drastic declines in insect abundance, largely associated with intensive agriculture. To understand how pollinator populations are changing, Canada needs to establish a standardized, wide-scale federal monitoring program.

An effective national monitoring program would provide an overarching framework for monitoring across the country. Every year, the same information would be collected at the same sites in ecosystems across the country. For example, researchers would document which species are present and in what numbers. Templates of effective monitoring programs already exist. For example, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has written a Protocol to Detect and Monitor Pollinator Communities. Inspiration can also be found in efforts such as the Monitoring Avian Productivity and Survivorship (MAPS) program, a continent-wide collaboration to assist the conservation of birds and their habitats. There are more than 1,200 MAPS stations spread across almost every US state and most Canadian provinces. More than 100 scientific papers have emerged from their collaborative work. Though the group is non-governmental, it shows that large-scale coordination is possible and can produce meaningful results.

A federal monitoring program is also an opportunity to educate and engage citizens in understanding the role of pollinators and how they are faring. The United Kingdom’s Pollinator Monitoring and Research Partnership, for example, enlists members of the public to carry out ten-minute FIT counts (Flower-Insect Timed Counts) to better establish pollinator baseline data. The project is a collaboration between the Scottish, Welsh and English federal governments and the UK-based Joint Nature Conservation Committee.

Whatever path it takes, the goal of a federal monitoring program is to collect standardized data so that future changes can be assessed and appropriate actions can be taken.

What Are Other Countries Doing?

Around the world, nations are prioritizing the recovery of pollinators. Whether by banning harmful substances, passing laws to ensure the creation of better habitat, or developing better monitoring programs, the world is waking up to the seriousness of pollinator decline and taking action to prevent it. Here are some examples:

It’s not just our food we need to worry about. About 75 to 95 per cent of Earth’s flowering plants rely on pollinators for reproduction. But many wild pollinators are put at risk when they fly over the farm fence to feed on the blooms of crops treated with neonics. In some areas, butterflies are sharply declining where their habitat is nearby agricultural areas. Neonics are one more problem for our disappearing wild pollinators to handle on top of habitat loss, disease, climate change and competition or predation from introduced species.
Bavaria, Germany

Scientific evidence of drastic insect decline in the region sparked a petition to seek better protection of plant and animal species, garnering 1.75 million signatures. In response, the German state of Bavaria announced this year that they will pass a pollinator-protective law requiring 20 per cent of agricultural lands to meet organic farming standards by 2025, before reaching 30 per cent by 2030. Ten percent of green space in Bavaria will be turned into flowering meadows, and rivers and streams will be better protected from pesticides and fertilizers.


In 2014, the government of the United Kingdom published The National Pollinator Strategy: for bees and other pollinators in England. The ten-year strategy sets England up to work with farmers to: support pollinators on farmland; create and improve habitat for pollinators across towns, cities and the countryside; enhance their response to pest and disease risks; raise awareness of what pollinators need to survive and thrive; and improve evidence on the status of pollinators and the services they provide.

Twenty-Eight Countries, European Union

On May 29, 2018, the European Commission (the executive of the European Union) adopted regulations to completely ban the outdoor use of three harmful neonicotinoid pesticides: imidacloprid, clothianidin and thiamethoxam.

United States

In June 2014, President Obama issued a memorandum establishing a Pollinator Health Task Force that has since (2015) created a National Pollinator Health Strategy. The Strategy promotes the health of Honey Bees and other pollinators, including birds, bats, butterflies and insects. It contains detailed federal actions aimed at achieving three overarching goals: (1) reduce Honey Bee colony losses during winter to no more than 15 per cent within 10 years, (2) increase the eastern population of the Monarch Butterfly to 225 million butterflies over six hectares of their Mexican wintering grounds by 2020, and (3) restore or enhance 7 million acres of land for pollinators over five years (by 2020) through federal actions and private/public partnerships. To achieve these goals through evidence-based decision-making, the Pollinator Research Action Plan (part of the Strategy) provides a roadmap for federally-supported research to gather and establish baseline data, assess environmental stressors, restore habitat, understand and support stakeholders, and curate and share knowledge. This plan has resulted in restored meadow habitat across hundreds of thousands of acres.


The All-Ireland Pollinator Plan (2015 to 2020) was published by Ireland’s National Biodiversity Data Centre and included input from 70 scientists and stakeholders. Sixty-eight governmental and non-governmental organizations have supported the plan, which identifies 81 specific actions across five objectives: making Ireland pollinator-friendly (on farmland, public land and private land); raising awareness of pollinators and how to protect them; supporting beekeepers and growers for healthier-managed bees; expanding knowledge of pollinators and pollination services; and collecting evidence to track change and measure success. Ireland also produced a pollinator plan designed for youth to create a new generation of concerned and active citizens.

What is a Pollinator Pathway?

Pollinator habitat is becoming increasingly diminished and fragmented, due in part to the growth of human communities, transportation corridors and industry. But it doesn’t have to be this way. In fact, the creation of pollinator habitats can be quite complementary to these landscapes. By working together, private and public landowners can create pollinator pathways – pesticide-free corridors of native plants that provide nutrition and habitat for pollinators and help them to disperse into new habitats in response to climate change.

Pollinator pathways restore and create a diversity of permanent, high-quality, wildflower-rich habitats. They can be created by connecting multiple features: blossoming pastures on farmland, boulevards planted with pollinator-friendly plants in towns and cities, backyard gardens, and transmission lines blooming with native wildflowers. There is no one-size-fits-all approach. The goal is to connect properties at a distance that is within the range of most native pollinators in the area. For example, if local native bees have a range of about 750 metres, properties would be no farther apart than that, and ideally corridors of native habitat would connect these properties.

Creating pollinator pathways requires a lot of coordination and planning, but the benefits are plentiful. Not only do they bolster the number of pollinators and the services they deliver, but they also provide habitat for other wildlife and an opportunity for people to participate in the planning and to interact with nature in a meaningful way. Buglife’s B-lines initiative, with the goal of restoring at least 150,000 hectares of flower-rich habitat in the United Kingdom, is a great example of all these benefits.

Corporations Can Create Pollinator Pathways

Natural gas pipelines, electric transmission corridors, solar arrays and wind farms occupy millions of acres of land across the country. For safety reasons, many companies must maintain vegetation under a certain height on their fields and right-of-ways – the long strips of land under power lines, over/beside pipelines and along roads. Most pollinator-friendly plants are a good fit for these restrictions, making them a good option for managing vegetation on corporate landscapes.

Companies can foster pollinator habitat on their land in a number of ways. The first is to restore the disturbed landscape with natural, native vegetation – preferably with flowers and shrubs that are in bloom from early spring through to fall to ensure continuous pollen and nectar sources. The second is to maintain vegetation in a way that minimizes harm to pollinators where possible. For example, cutting back on harmful herbicides, mowing only at the end of the summer once pollinators have finished using the plants, and removing invasive species. Finally, companies can enhance pollinator habitat by planting flowers and shrubs that provide pollinators with nesting and overwintering sites.

Some companies are already on board. For example, BC Hydro has invited the public to help create pollinator habitat in the open spaces beneath their power lines. In conjunction with the not-for-profit Return the Landscape, the Sarnia Solar Farm in Ontario has planted the grounds between solar arrays with native plants that support pollinators. In 2017, they planted an additional 1,400 milkweed plants, bringing in Monarch Butterflies. The Canadian Wildlife Federation has partnered with Hyrdo One, Lanark County and the National Capital Commission to restore pollinator habitat along roadsides, bike paths and hydro lines.

In the United States, The Rights-of-Way as Habitat Working Group – formed in 2015 – is a unique collaboration of professionals from across multiple sectors, including natural gas, electric, rail and road industries. More than 200 organizations participate from private industry, government agencies, not-for-profit organizations and academia in the United States and Canada. CWF is a member. The Group shares pollinator restoration ideas and identifies best management practices for habitat conservation on working landscapes. The Group is hosted and coordinated by the Energy Resources Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Farmers can Contribute to Pollinator Pathways and Improve Habitat Overall

Intensive agricultural practices have been linked to the decline of pollinators through the loss of native flowering plants to cropland, fragmentation and degradation of habitat, pesticide use, and the introduction of domestic pollinators that spread diseases and parasites. However, many farmers recognize the importance not only of managed bees, but also of wild pollinators such as bees and flower flies that pollinate crops and protect other ecosystem services. Some farmers are seeking a return to a more sustainable kind of agriculture that helps to diversify landscapes and make use of ecological processes as a sustainable part of food production.

Farmers can help recover pollinator populations in a number of ways. They can create and maintain a greater diversity of natural habitats, for example by planting native flowering plants along the edges of croplands. The maintenance of hedgerows and woodlots also helps support wild pollinators, as many species nest within these habitats. Farmers can decrease the exposure of pollinators to harmful chemicals by reducing their use of pesticides, seeking alternatives for pest control, and taking measures to reduce pesticide drift from crop plants to other areas. If using Honey Bee colonies for pollination, farmers can press for better pathogen control coupled with better regulation of trade and use of commercial pollinators. In doing all of the above, farmers can protect the pollinators using their fields, contribute habitat to pollinator pathways, and boost the number of pollinators in their habitat overall.

“Pollinators are essential to our food supply, ecosystems and enjoyment of nature. There are hundreds of scientific studies that have demonstrated the serious harm of neonic pesticides and habitat loss on pollinators and other wildlife like birds and bats. We need to reverse the impacts if we are to avoid undermining the very ecosystems that support farming in Canada.”
David Browne PhD, Director of Conservation Science | Canadian Wildlife Federation

Pollinator Pathways Benefit Many Species

The creation of pollinator pathways can benefit many species by providing pesticide-free, pollinator-specific habitat for feeding in the summer and nesting and hibernating in the winter. For example, when pathways include milkweed plants, they provide valuable habitat for Monarch Butterflies, famous for their spectacular migrations between overwintering grounds in Mexico and California and back again to the upper US states and southern Canada. Tiger Swallowtails like milkweed, too. They are large, mostly yellow and black butterflies with “tails” on their wings, well known for “mud-puddling,” or drinking in minerals from damp ground. Unlike Monarch caterpillars, they eat many other plants, such as the leaves of wild cherry, lilac, birch and cottonwood. The adults roll out their long tongues to feed on some of those plants’ blossoms, in addition to many others.

Though less well-known, hundreds of fly and beetle species are important in pollination. Take the Orange-legged Drone Fly. Like many in the hoverfly family (AKA flower flies), it looks a bit like a bee – a Drone Honey Bee, in this case. Orange-legged Drone Flies are common visitors to many wild flowers, as are checkered beetles – large black beetles with brilliant red spots that carry pollen on their legs from one flower to another. Their larvae (and the adults of some species) are predacious, serving another important role in the pollinator pathway ecosystem.

No pollinator pathway would be complete without bees. Canada has over 800 bee species. The creation of bee habitat is especially important for both the Western and Yellow-banded Bumble Bees, both species at-risk in Canada. These fat, fuzzy fliers gather pollen and nectar from a variety of flower species located everywhere from farms to meadows to the boreal forest. As they typically nest underground in old rodent burrows or in the hollows of decaying wood, pathways that include this kind of habitat are particularly inviting.