Study Reveals Threats to Pollinator-Plant Networks in Great Lakes Gardens

bean plants in rows

Losing just one wild bee species can disrupt the production of vegetables, fruits, and flowers in Indigenous gardens. (Credit: Unsplash.com)

by | May 30, 2024

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A recent study by York University underscores the critical role of wild bee species in maintaining the reproductive success of plants, particularly in Indigenous gardens in the Great Lakes region. Researchers have highlighted that the loss of even a single wild bee species can significantly disrupt the production of vegetables, fruits, and flowers. This disruption threatens local ecosystems and has broader implications for global food security. Pollination deficits can reduce plant resources, endangering pollinators’ survival and creating a vicious cycle of decline.

The research team focused on the intricate co-dependency between pollinators and plants in a three sisters garden, a traditional Indigenous intercropping method. This garden, which includes culturally important medicinal plants, serves as a model to understand how pollinator-plant networks operate and the threats they face. The findings emphasize the delicate balance within these ecosystems and the potential for human activities to cause irreversible damage.

Threats to the Three Sisters Garden: A Closer Look

The study, titled “Determining the plant-pollinator network in a culturally significant food and medicine garden in the Great Lakes region,” published in PeerJ, reveals that changes in land use, pesticide application, the invasion of non-native species, and climate change are significantly impacting pollinator-plant relationships. The three sisters’ garden—corn, beans, and squash—relies heavily on insect pollination, particularly from species like the hoary squash bee, which has co-evolved with the plants it pollinates.

Data from the study show that out of approximately 63 bee species in the surrounding community, 37 species, or 59%, were identified within the garden. Bumblebees, especially the common eastern bumblebee, were the most frequent visitors, alongside the hoary squash bee. These bees are vital for pollinating plants such as Patty Pan squash, which has a narrow window from dawn to noon.

The hoary squash bee, in particular, plays a crucial role due to its specialized hairs for collecting squash pollen and its activity during the squash pollination window. However, its range is shrinking due to agricultural expansion, although honeybees and bumble bees can also pollinate squash in its absence. The study suggests specific management practices to protect the hoary squash bee, including minimizing pesticide exposure, providing nesting sites, and limiting deep tillage of the soil.

Future Directions: Conservation and Policy Recommendations

The findings from York University researchers stress the need for further research to manage ongoing threats to pollinators such as the common eastern bumblebee and the hoary squash bee. These species are critical for the three sisters’ garden system and the broader ecosystem of culturally significant plants. Effective conservation strategies include developing policies and programs that support pollinator diversity and promote sustainable agricultural practices.

The study’s management recommendations emphasize the importance of monitoring pollinator populations, providing suitable nesting habitats, and maintaining field proximity to minimize pesticide exposure. Implementing these practices can help stabilize pollinator-plant networks and ensure the continued availability of essential resources for plants and pollinators.

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