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The buzz on wild bees for improving biodiversity

June 16, 2022  By Cecilia Stuart and Samantha Mills, OCO

Agapostemon virescens (bicoloured striped-sweat bee) on a calendula located on an organic farm. This nesting bee is quite common and is known for its striking colour. Photos courtesy of Kyr Lightburn.

Yorkshire Valley’s annual Eco-Scholar award is granted to Canadian students aged sixteen and older who are passionate about agriculture as a force of societal good. Each year, four Eco-Scholars are awarded a total of $10,000 to support leadership in organic and regenerative research and practice.

At the 2022 Guelph Organic Conference, recipients of the 2021 Eco-Scholar award presented their winning research projects on organic and regenerative farming practices. One of these presenters was Kyr Lightburn, a PhD student in the department of plant agriculture at the University of Guelph. Lightburn’s research focuses on supporting diverse bee populations in and around agricultural systems. They are part of a larger group of young researchers investigating how to improve biodiversity in agricultural systems – a pressing issue in light of the rapid decline in global biodiversity.

Why study wild bee populations?
Bees serve a vital pollination function in agricultural systems. Roughly 35 per cent of the plants we eat rely on pollinators to reproduce, including crops like almonds, apples, blueberries, peaches and soybeans. Although honeybees and bumblebees are the most well-known species within the Apidae family, thousands of wild bee species can be found across North America. Not every species produces honey, lives in hives or colonies, or has stingers, but each serves a vital role within their ecosystem as key supporters of plant abundance and diversity.

To support wild bee populations, habitats need to meet specific requirements. These include:

  • A wide variety of flowering plant species;
  • Nesting opportunities: some bees live in the ground, woodpiles and the grass. Soil 
  • damage can therefore have a negative impact on ground-nesting bees;
  • Water sources, include ponds, puddles, streams, lakes and dew;
  • Connected landscapes: some bee species will not fly very far from their homes in search of resources (bumblebees will only fly about five kilometres away, solitary bees less than that), so isolation from abundant, nearby resources can be harmful for a population;
  • Proximity to natural spaces that support the population.

Although Lightburn’s focus is on the value of rotationally grazed pasture lands in supporting bee biodiversity, their research also considers how the agriculture sector at large can support bee biodiversity. This is a topic of keen interest for organic farmers looking for innovative ways to better incorporate biodiversity and holistic management into their cropping systems.

Bombus terricola (yellow-banded bumblebee) on a purple coneflower. This species has been classified as a species of “special concern” by COSEWIC.

Lightburn’s research project
Lightburn’s study looks at the effects of grassland management on wild bee populations in rotationally grazed pastures in southern Ontario. They are investigating the effects of factors such as organic versus non-organic management, grazing and grazing intensity, sward management and surrounding landscapes on both bee and floral abundance, as well as diversity in community structures.

Lightburn hypothesizes that spatial and temporal patterns in floral abundance and species richness would drive the bee populations’ community structure. They also hypothesize that increased grazing intensity would reduce overall bee abundance and diversity, and that recent grazing would enhance the presence of ground-nesting bee species on all pastures.

Although their study is ongoing, Lightburn shared some preliminary results during the Guelph Organic Conference. Interestingly, while they found higher mean floral abundance in organic systems in year one of their research, this did not translate to a higher number of bees (non-organic systems showed a slightly higher mean). While these findings are too preliminary to draw conclusions from, they raise important questions about the potential of organic management systems to support bee diversity in multiple types of farm systems – not just pasturelands.

As Lightburn’s presentation pointed out, understanding how bees function in pasture systems has broad implications for all agricultural systems in terms of what it shows about the importance of landscape, scale and the ecological services farmers provide or facilitate.

What are the implications for Canadian farmers?
Lightburn suggested that farmers could support bee populations through practicing controlled grazing, planting diverse foliage and flowers on the farm, and leaving land along the edges of fields and roads unmanaged with limited disturbance. Through these activities, farms can boost biodiversity by incorporating natural landscapes into farm systems and providing space and resources for bees to nest. This support will assist in creating strong, genetically variable bee populations that are central to the flourishing of our agricultural system.

Biodiversity loss and climate change are two sides of the same crisis: we cannot address one without the other. Studies like Lightburn’s are key to ensuring farmers have the resources needed to explore and implement agro-ecological solutions for supporting biodiversity. Their work makes an important contribution to the future of organic farming in Canada, identifying and testing innovative practices that can help farmers build resilient farming systems.

To learn more about how organic agriculture can be part of Canada’s climate solution, check out the Organic Council of Ontario’s Organic Climate Solutions campaign to access learning resources, funding opportunities and more.

Visit to learn more about the Eco-Scholar award program and meet the 2022 winners.

About OCO
The Organic Council of Ontario (OCO) is the voice for organics in Ontario. We are the only full value chain association operating at the provincial level. OCO represents over 1,300 certified organic operators, as well as the businesses, organizations, and individuals that bring food from farm to plate. OCO works to catalyze sector growth, support research, improve training, increase data collection, encourage market development, protect the integrity of organic claims, and inform the public of the benefits and requirements of organic agriculture.

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