NatureNL Blog

Welcome to the new Nature Newfoundland & Labrador Blog. Here we share interesting local nature stories, photos from our hikes and events, selections of articles from our publication ‘The Osprey’, and more.

Bees, Agriculture and the Precautionary Principle

 

By Julie Sircom,  Grenfell Campus, Memorial University of Newfoundland

 

 

It’s hard to miss the news that Newfoundland’s honey bees are special – Varroa mite, a major pest elsewhere, is absent from the island, and several other diseases have not been found here. Many of the stressors that have led to declines elsewhere aren’t a problem here. Far less is known about the island’s native bees. There are over 70 species, from tiny solitary bees not much larger than an ant to the familiar fuzzy bumble bees. These bees provide a vital and largely unmeasured service, pollinating both crops and native plants. There would be no berry-picking in the autumn if it weren’t for our many native pollinators. Little is known about the health of our native bees, either in terms of the stability of their populations or the types of diseases that affect them.

 

There would be no berry-picking in the autumn if it weren’t for our many native pollinators.

 

The Canadian Environmental Law Association (www.cela.ca) defines the precautionary principle as the duty to do whatever we can to prevent harm, whether or not we have all of the evidence. In the case of Newfoundland’s pollinators, both the native species and the managed honey bees, this means avoiding the possible introduction of pests, disease, and alien species. There are two main ways this might happen: imports of honey bees and related equipment, and imports of the commercially-reared bumble bee Bombus impatiens. There are regulations regarding both, but the latter is seen as less of a threat, based on a number of assumptions.

 

Although imports of bumble bees were allowed in the past, no permits have been issued in recent years. Due to earlier imports, B. impatiens is currently considered to have low environmental risk. It has been assumed that the bees are disease-free as they are reared in a controlled environment and are not thought to share diseases with honey bees. The commercial nests are also equipped with queen excluders that are designed to prevent queens from leaving the nests and establishing new colonies. Furthermore, B. impatiens is a more southerly species and it is assumed that any escapees would be unable to survive Newfoundland’s harsher winters. All of these turn out to be questionable assumptions.

 

Common Eastern Bumble bee (Bombus impatiens) (Photo By Judy Gallagher [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons).

Import permits for B. impatiens have not been issued recently due to rising concern about the potential impact on local bees. Commercially-reared bumble bees have been shown to carry a number of parasites and diseases. These are almost certainly capable of infecting native bees, which may not have the defences to fight such infections. In addition, some of these pathogens are shared with honey bees. Parasite and disease transfer between B. impatiens and other bees is very simple: bees repeatedly visit the same flower as its nectar reserves are replenished. An infected bee can leave behind ‘hitchhikers’ that survive until the next bee visits the flower. Bees also visit other nests more frequently than you might imagine. If a native bee enters a B. impatiens nest to rob a little nectar, it can very easily become infected.

 

It is also clear that B. impatiens can overwinter in Newfoundland. Bumble bee nests die off at the end of the season, and only new queens overwinter. In 2015, B. impatiens was imported for supplemental pollination on a cranberry farm in Western Newfoundland. To the best of my knowledge, these were ‘used’ bees, from lowbush blueberry crops in Nova Scotia or New Brunswick. This is obviously of concern, as they would have been exposed to a range of parasites and diseases in those fields. These nests either were not equipped with queen excluders because B. impatiens is native to the Maritime provinces, or were damaged; either way, an unknown number of queens escaped. In May and June 2016, I collected 24 B. impatiens queens on the farm. These must have come from the commercial nests imported the previous year; no B. impatiens were recorded in any other sampling location.

 

But what would happen if B. impatiens were to become established in Newfoundland?

 

So far, there is no sign that any of the queens successfully established a nest, but searching for a newly-established species is like looking for a needle in a haystack. But what would happen if B. impatiens were to become established in Newfoundland? Would it really matter? We don’t know, so the precautionary principle dictates that we do our best to avoid it happening.

 

One possible outcome is the displacement of native species. The queens of B. impatiens are larger than many of our native bees, and in 2016 they emerged early in the season. This raises the possibility of these queens establishing nests in prime locations before some native bees are even active, and usurping nesting sites from smaller native bees that are active at the same time. This includes one of the most abundant species, at least in Western Newfoundland, B. ternarius. This is a distinctive bumble bee with a broad orange band on its abdomen.

 

Bombus ternarius on Aster (Photo by Julie Sircom).

 

A pragmatist might ask why this matters, as long as there are bumble bees to perform the task of pollinating. However, if B. impatiens were to dominate the bumble bee community, important ecological resiliency would be lost. Our diverse native bee community is adapted to local conditions and provides insurance against our often unpredictable weather. If B. impatiens populations crashed, there may be few species to take up the slack. If parasites and diseases carried by these bees were passed to honey bees and led to colony losses, they would be unable to fill the pollination needs of agriculture. There are many other unknowns with regards to the extent of environmental effects of introduced B. impatiens. For example, I collaborated with Barry Hicks (College of the North Atlantic, Carbonear), on a study in Western Newfoundland that suggested that B. impatiens was a less efficient pollinator than native bees.

 

If Newfoundland is to preserve the special status of its honey bees, and protect its native pollinators, the precautionary principle must be applied. It is tempting to take the easy route that claims to provide reliable pollination and consistent crop yields, but we should have greater faith in our own resources. A few simple farming techniques, such as maintaining native flowering plants on field margins, can ensure a diverse and abundant pollinator community. Meanwhile, my research team and collaborators can continue to collect the missing evidence that will allow us to make informed choices about whether we need supplemental pollination, and how best to deliver it if we do.

 

Trip Report – Annual Long Pond Clean Up

by Emma Bocking

 

Thank you to all of the wonderful volunteers who came out to our annual clean up of Long Pond last Saturday. We had a total of 24 people haul out over 20 bags of garbage from around the pond, including a large plastic barrel that some volunteers are planning to upcycle for use in their garden!

This year, the clean up was our way of celebrating International Migratory Bird Day. The shoreline around Long Pond is important habitat for urban populations of waterfowl, and several species such as black duck, pintail and greater scaup are regularly spotted on the pond and surrounding marshy riparian zone. This annual clean up is held every year in early spring, to remove debris from the area before nesting season begins.

 

Thank you again to everyone who helped out. See you next year!

 

John Blake passes away

In the midst of another round of deep cuts to the Wildlife Division, Mr. John Blake, Director of Wildlife Division, has passed away.

http://www.thetelegram.com/news/local/2017/3/28/john-blake-was-a-giant-among-outdoors-enthusiasts-in-n-l-.html

 

 

 

Trip report – snowshoeing in a winter wonderland

 

by Allan Stein and Michael Collins 

 

One couldn’t really ask for better weather for the February 20th 2017 Nature NL snowshoe trip – not too cold or windy, with sun and blue skies and, of course, plenty of snow! The snow not only covered the ground and the tree limbs, but also coated the tree trunks creating quite a winter wonderland.  Even though the snow was very deep we decided not to use snowshoes as on the main trails snowmobiles had packed the snow down enough to walk on just in boots.

 

The area was dense woodland mostly covered with conifers and an occasional dogberry.  As one might have expected snowshoe hare tracks were abundant, many smaller than might be expected.  Allan pointed out that hares give birth to young around this time of year hence the many smaller sets of hare prints.

 

Besides buds snipped off by hares close to snow level, there were also a number of smaller deciduous shrubs where the bark had been scraped off by hares near the base.  On several occasions we heard the sounds of a moose ahead of us although we didn’t actually see the animal.  There was, however, plenty of evidence of moose feeding as many of the dogberry buds had been snapped off by moose.

 

In one area we came across a set of dog-like tracks which did not show the aimless wandering of a dog and which were too small for a fox.  We concluded that the tracks were those of a coyote.  Towards the end of the trip the sun came out from behind the clouds creating a real life Christmas scene with the snow decorating the conifer branches.  In places the sunlight shone through icicles hanging from the trees giving the appearance of multicoloured Christmas tree decorations!

 

All in all a very enjoyable stroll through the woods among wonderful natural scenery!

 

A Birdfeeder Model

 

As with most good deeds, feeding birds in the winter is done primarily for the benefit of the feeder, not the eater. We place feeders near our window, to enjoy the comings and goings of various small birds all day long. But the standard feeder has some problems.

 

Houses are surrounded by cleared areas, where a concentration of small birds attracts the attention of hawks, who are faster and manoeuver better than small birds away from protective shelter. Thus, to satisfy our desire to observe them, we expose them to additional risk, and some are sacrificed for our pleasure. You may argue that hawks are also birds, and surely also deserve to be fed at bird feeders. Indeed. Certainly, nobody can deny the thrill of watching them swoop, rush, twist and turn. But just like the small birds, once they learn of a constant food source, they return with regularity. Small birds learn to stay away. There is no fun in watching an empty feeder all day.

 

Blue jays also thwart our desire to see a variety of small birds: although jays do not chase or threaten smaller birds, when they fly in, small birds flee, presumably wary of anything the size of a sharp-shinned hawk. Usually they can tell the difference, and do not disappear altogether, but only fly as far as the nearest tree. Still, they desert the feeder as long as the jays are there. And jays have a nasty habit of spilling a feederful of seeds onto the ground in less than an hour to select a few morsels to their liking.

 

Squirrels are equally prone to driving off small birds. Some have devilry in them, and delight in chasing off every bird in sight, just for the sheer pleasure. Our red squirrel is considerably smaller than the gray of the mainland, so that most “squirrel-proof” feeders, created for mainland squirrels, pose no obstacle to ours. Ditto, as you will learn, for transformer guards. Live-trapping them and taking them to distant forests is futile. Immediately other squirrels fill the vacuum—the woods have no shortage.

 

After considerable thought about small birds, hawks, jays and squirrels, we came up with a plan. To keep hawks away, surround the feeder area with an 8 × 8 foot trellis on two sides, one against the house, making a semi-enclosed feeder space in front of the dining room window (Fig. 1). Little birds could fly in through the trellis, larger ones from the open end or above. We expected hawks to stay outside the enclosure, unable to fly through the trellis and unwilling to enter a dead-end. For jays and squirrels, do not fight them. Instead, provide plenty of food that they prefer above other offerings, on the periphery of the feeding area. Avoid mixed seeds, but use many feeders, with different feed in each. Provide enough room and board for all, with something for every taste.

 

Fig. 1: The semi-enclosed feeding area with feeders for attracting many kinds of birds. (Photo by Andrus and Maria Voitk).

 

We built the trellis and put up big feeders with platforms along the deck railing, filled them with peanuts, dry dog food and big sunflower seeds for squirrels and blue jays, smaller sunflower seeds for chickadees, smaller seeds for other birds. Above this we suspended hanging feeders of Nijer seeds, suet, and other seeds (Fig. 1).

 

The result was birds right outside our window on three levels: a high level of hanging feeders, a middle table-height level of big feeders, and a lower deck level for ground feeders (Fig. 2). There was also a fourth layer, visible from a basement workroom, of birds on the snow under the deck, eating the gleanings from this bountiful table. The season is over, and here we report the outcomes of this experiment.

 

Fig. 2: Lower deck of the feeding area for ground feeding birds. (Photo by Andrus and Maria Voitk).

 

Small birds. They came from first light until just after dusk. There was a colourful diversity of regulars: red polls, siskins, goldfinches, chickadees, blue jays, nuthatches, woodpeckers, juncos, and a couple over-wintering white-throated sparrows and one song sparrow. How like humans they all behaved! With a hundred times more food than they could eat, they all spent more time and energy chasing each other off the food and otherwise engaging in threatening and hostile behaviour, than peacefully chowing down all day long.

 

Chickadees and juncos came immediately, the latter almost overrunning the place at one stage. Then came goldfinches, then siskins and in February, redpolls, both common and hoary. This was a bumper year for redpolls (Fig. 3). Each successive wave mixed with the incumbents for a while, but eventually almost replaced them. Chickadees continued flitting in and out, nuthatches and woodpeckers came to the suet, and groundfeeders like juncos always found a place, but otherwise it was wall-to-wall goldfinch, siskin and redpoll, in that order. Often flocks waited their turn in the surrounding trees (Fig. 4). At the height of flock density, there were over 200 birds in the feeder area at a time, at peak times double that number. When they all took flight in response to a real or imagined threat, the rush of fluttering wings was heard throughout the house.

 

Fig. 3. Common and Hoary Redpolls at the feeder. (Photo by Andrus and Maria Voitk).

 

Fig. 4: Birds waiting their turn for the feeders. (Photo by Andrus and Maria Voitk).

Hawks. Yes, they came—a sharp shinned hawk and, first time this year, a goshawk. As predicted, they did not fly into the dead end space, but tried to catch a bird on the fly to or from the feeder station. Birds inside the enclosure often did not see the hawk watching or flying by, and so did not all flee (which would have made them easy prey). For the first few weeks a hawk was seen almost daily, the visits tapering off to no more than one or two a month. Unwilling to enter the enclosed space, it seems hawks gave up trying to capture single birds on the wing. Probably they found easier prey at more open feeders.

 

Blue jays. Given ample food of their choice, they no longer spilled whole feederloads to the ground to find the seeds to their liking, but went directly to feeders with their preferred food. They had a great system: swallow as many dog food kiblets in a row as possible (the observed record was nine), then fly away with a last beakful. The littler birds still took wing on the arrival of jays, but quickly returned, each comfortable to eat in his corner.

 

Squirrels. Squirrels also chose the feeders with dog food or big sunflower seeds, and ate frenziedly in a dark corner of the feeder-shelf, usually leaving other feeders to the birds. But, of course, they were still squirrels, so often they spent valuable eating time aggressively chasing every single bird away from the eating area first, then settling in for a long feed. But the birds waited and watched in the nearby trees, returning as soon as the squirrel had settled in. Still, there is a problem with making food available to squirrels: squirrel density increases markedly. True to their nature, they tried to cache some away for leaner times. Some used the small gap in the transformer on the hydro pole—another squirrel-proof device, we were told—as a storage place. Death to squirrel came by electrocution. The first time meant several hours of no heat, no electricity, until we finally figured out what was wrong and the Hydro team answered our summons and reinstated the power. When, three days later, another tried to roast a peanut in the same transformer and suffered the same fate, we removed the peanuts. After the peanuts were removed, squirrel electrocution frequency decreased, but over the season a total of four squirrels shuffled off that mortal coil. Final for the squirrel, costly for Newfoundland Power, and bad for the homeowner: potential frozen pipes and so forth, should there be nobody at home for a few days.

 

Peanuts. Do not offer them, definitely not in unlimited quantities. Jays and squirrels prefer peanuts over all other food, and stay at the feeders all day long, keeping small birds at a distance. Both “waste” much by hiding them in the snow. And, as we saw, peanuts markedly increase squirrel electrocution.

 

Summary. The system works well for a wooded area on the Island, providing hours of viewing enjoyment. It may present problems in regions with skunks and raccoons, and may not work in urban areas, where rats are a problem. Where we live, the system is easy to maintain. The big bins provide a buffer for the times we are away, when the smaller feeders go unfilled. Hawks do not bother the birds, yet need not go totally hungry—they just have to work harder to catch prey. Squirrels and jays are not significant deterrents for scores of smaller birds, and the occasional stoat provides an added thrill (Fig. 5). Squirrel electrocution remains a problem. Constructing a squirrel-proof feeder seems unrealistic, and a better transformer guard, specifically designed for our red squirrels, seems like a more likely solution.

 

Fig. 5: The occasional stoat or short tailed weasel sometimes makes an appearance. (Photo by Andrus and Maria Voitk).

 

We can supply plans for this system in return for a small flask of Cognac, even workmen to custom-build feeders to suit your deck. Work and workmen will cost a few more flasks. Quite a few. Think drums, not flasks.

– Andrus & Maria Voitk

 

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