There has been lots of bad news about pollinators lately; from low honeybee colony survivorship to extinction concerns about native pollinator species. Despite the negative headlines however, there’s reason to hope. Leaders in technology, biology, government policy, agriculture, beekeeping and community innovation are working together on mutually beneficial solutions to improve conditions for pollinators.

The importance of pollinators cannot be undervalued. Up to 90 per cent of wild flowering plants depend on pollination services by bees, butterflies, moths, bats and more. Within agriculture, pollinators impact 75 per cent of total crops in production. Honeybees pollinate a third of the food you eat.

Honeybees are the primary agricultural pollinators. They’re responsible for pollinating various crops, including almonds, apples, cherries, avocados, melons and blueberries. These colonies are managed by migratory beekeepers, who transport millions of hives across North America. They migrate from one crop to another for eight months of the year. Beekeepers often make more money from pollination contracts than from producing honey.

Honeybees are a domesticated species, like chickens. Unlike their native pollinator relatives, honeybees aren’t in danger of extinction. Commercial beekeepers routinely factor hive mortality assumptions into their business model, generally around 40 per cent.

However, honeybees are facing lower survivorship and greater stress than ever due to disease, pesticides, extreme weather and poor land management practices. Combined with high prices of everything from sugar to gas, the business of beekeeping is becoming tougher.

To address these challenges, Nectar Technologies uses data to improve commercial beekeeping decision-making. This Montreal startup is tracking tens of thousands of hives with Beetrack, a record-keeping solution where commercial beekeepers can digitally log the location, health, treatment and feeding of their hives. Nectar works with beekeepers to analyze their data so they can improve management decisions, plan better, improve pollination contract negotiations and save resources.

Both honeybee and native pollinator populations are declining due to land use changes, climate change, and increased pesticide application. Native pollinators are essential to our ecosystems because flowering plants require pollination by native bees, flies, butterflies, beetles, moths, bats, birds and other animals. Pollinator biodiversity is staggering: there are over 1,000 bee species native to North America. Farmers and land managers are taking positive steps towards restoring and enriching pollinator ecosystems.

Honeybees take flight in a holding yard between migratory pollination stops. Photo courtesy of Nectar Technologies

One collaboration is Seeds for Bees, which encourages cover crops on California farmland. Seeds for Bees is part of Project Apis m., a non-profit that funds research and initiatives to improve honeybee health. Seeds for Bees designed specialized seed mixes for both honeybees and wild bees. Landowners use the seed mixes to plant cover crops, which bloom when natural forage is hard to find but bees are active.

Opinion: Both honeybee and native pollinator populations are declining due to land use changes, climate change and increased pesticide application, writes Hannah Thomas @nectarbuzz. #canadianbeekeeping #montrealtech #honeybees #beekeeping

Just like us, bees have better health when they’re able to access varied, nourishing food sources. Healthier honeybees mean stronger hives for the beekeeper and higher crop yields (due to better pollination) for the farmer. Cover crops have the added benefit of improving the soil by naturally controlling weeds, increasing water infiltration, enhancing biodiversity and reducing erosion.

The Bee and Butterfly Habitat Fund is another project by beekeepers and Project Apis m. to rethink vacant land use. Biologists work with landowners to design the optimal seed mix to maximize bloom biodiversity, density and duration for pollinators in that specific area. When planted, the once-vacant land becomes pollinator habitat. It’s a great example of beekeepers, biologists and farmers collaborating to improve landscapes for pollinators.

There’s also historic interest in pollinator health at the federal level in the United States. In September 2021, the USDA announced a $3-billion investment in agriculture, animal health and nutrition. This money is funding initiatives to address drought, improve animal health and advance climate-smart farming practices.

As part of the historic investment, Blue Diamond Growers Co-op, which represents nearly half of California almond growers, was awarded $45 million for climate-smart orchard programs. The funding will expand their implementation of regenerative practices like cover crops and hedgerows, which have a positive impact on honeybees and wild pollinators.

In Canada, Montreal will host the UN Biodiversity Conference in December. International governments will assemble to work on new goals to protect and restore nature. Current targets to benefit pollinators include conservation and restoration of land-based ecosystems, as well as pesticide reduction benchmarks.

At the community level in Montreal, innovators are rethinking traditional styles of lawns and gardens. Nouveaux Voisins developed a collection of trial gardens designed to bring biodiversity back to our lawns. The experiment replaced conventional grass yards and ornamental gardens with a diverse landscape to better support native plants and pollinators. The gardens can be seen at the Ecological Transition Campus in Jean Drapeau Park for anyone to learn more.

Want to create a pollinator-friendly garden at your home? In The Zone is a Canadian initiative championing biodiverse local planting. It provides guidance and resources to help people transform their outdoor spaces using native plants, which provide habitat for native pollinators like bees and butterflies.

These are challenging times for both honeybees and native pollinators. There are also opportunities for cross-sectoral collaboration, with proven, mutually beneficial solutions from the worlds of technology, biology, government policy, agriculture, apiculture and community innovation. While there is still much to be done, there are many reasons to have hope for our pollinators.

Hannah Thomas is the marketing and communications manager at Nectar Technologies, a Montreal-based startup at the intersection of data, AI and commercial beekeeping. Originally from St. Catharines, Ont., she moved to Costa Rica in 2016. If not at her desk, you can find her surfing or in the garden.