The cattle and the bees

By Susanne Martin

The number of blossoms on the Y U Ranch in Ontario has multiplied over the last decade, providing sustenance for the wild bees that share the habitat with the Texas Longhorns raised by Cathy and Bryan Gilvesy. 

The efforts to support bees with a shift to native vegetation and pollinator hedgerows were consequences of the couple’s desire to make their farm more resilient and sustainable. It also earned them the 2013 Canadian Farmer-Rancher Pollinator Advocate Award for their significant contribution to cultivating natural ecosystems and protecting pollinators.

“We’ve devoted half our arable land to tall prairie grasses that have an enormous amount of flowers,” Bryan explains. “These grasses are deep-rooted and diverse.”

Native to Ontario yet only found on a few preserved tracts of land, prairie grasses flourish in the heat. That makes them a viable alternative to the more commonly used European grasses that grow dormant in temperatures over 30 degrees. In drought conditions, when many farmers have to bring in feed, the cattle at Y U Ranch simply move to prairie grass pastures. 

From cultivating prairie grasses came a greater awareness of the plight of bees. “We learned that native bees were in trouble, partly because of the reduced resources of nectar and pollen due to the prevalence of monoculture crops,” Bryan says. To help counteract that trend, the Gilvesys installed hedgerows with bee nesting structures.

Hedgerows protect the land against wind erosion, and by using native flowering trees and shrubs, the Gilvesys provided more food sources for wild bees.

“In addition to producing healthy grass-fed beef, our goal is to nourish the environment,” Bryan says. “We like to push the margins of sustainability for Y U Ranch as far as possible.”

What’s the buzz?

When it comes to growing crops, less can be more if you enlist the help of wild bees. A study in northern Alberta found that canola farmers who’d left one-third of their land as unmanaged habitat within bee flight of their crop made more than double the profit of their counterparts who farmed 100 per cent of the land, says bee biologist Mark Winston, author of the upcoming book Bee Time: Lessons from the Hive.

Confirming that improved wild bee habitat can lead to increased yields for crops that require pollination, the study presents an alternative option at a time when beekeeping has become more difficult and expensive due to the Colony Collapse Disorder that has decimated managed honeybee colonies by one-third annually since 2006. “Enhancing the population of wild bees can give farmers a sustainable solution,” says Winston.

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