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Les Henry: Finding a place for bees

Syngenta’s Operation Pollinator: a good fit for an awkward piece of land

Bees are an important part of crop production, particularly canola. In recent years, concern about bee populations has initiated work to learn more and do more to help maintain bee populations.

Operation Pollinator is a program of Syngenta Canada Inc. with the objective of encouraging bee populations to assist with pollination of commercial crops.

It is coordinated by the Soil Conservation Council of Canada. Provincial partners include the Saskatchewan Soil Conservation Association, Agriculture Research and Extension Council of Alberta and Manitoba Conservation District Association. Ducks Unlimited Canada also assists with field inspections and coordinating tours of plots.

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Operation Pollinator pays $100 per acre for each year. For me, that was sufficient incentive to proceed and give the project I try. It has been my pleasure to be a cooperator in this program for the past two years.

The site

The ideal site is about one to two acres in size and a piece of ground that does not fit in well with large-scale crop production.

I have just such a site. It is in the southwest corner of a quarter section with sloughs that make access difficult, particularly in recent wet years. A complicating factor was a neighbour’s bin yard at the property boundary that resulted in huge snowdrifts that delayed access to the site for seeding. That is simply a statement of fact, not a complaint.

Operation Pollinator supplies a mixture of seeds that includes timothy, birdsfoot trefoil, alsike clover, red clover, yellow and white sweet clover and phacelia. They ship the seed in two well-sealed bags with 22 pounds of seed mixture in each bag.

In 2017 it was not possible to seed the corner. At the time the rest of the quarter was seeded to peas, so the corner was seeded to barley later with an old 15-foot discer, just to keep the weeds down. It was a mixture of barley, broadleaf weeds, foxtail barley and volunteer canola that was cultivated in late summer and fall to prepare a suitable seedbed for the pollinator seeds in 2018.

2018 seeding and results

The spring of 2018 was dry with only a few showers of 0.1 to 0.3 inches. On May 15, the site was worked with a cultivator with 16-inch sweeps, shallow and fast to break up lumps and foxtail clumps. A hard thing to do for a zero-till farmer but I had no suitable equipment to seed into what was there.

On May 30 there was 0.1 inch of rain and the forecast suggested that a significant rain of 1.5 inches was likely for June 1. On May 31 the plot was broadcast seeded using only one bag (22 pounds) of the seed mixture. That was more than 10 lbs./acre so I thought it best to save back a bag of seed, just in case. I then went over the plot with the cultivator with sweeps just levelling the ground and the mounted tine harrows to cover the seed.

The big rain forecast for June 1 turned out to be only 0.4 inches. I suspected that not much would happen but by June 8 a few plants were emerging, including a strange plant with notched leaves that I had not seen before (phacelia). The total June rain was only 0.9 inches in small amounts.

July offered promise with 0.75 inches July 1 and 0.85 inches July 4.

The July rain brought the phacelia on quickly and by July 20 it was in full, glorious bloom. When I first visited the site in bloom the buzzing of bees was audible as soon as I got out of the truck.

Phacelia, the star of the show, in full bloom by July 22, 2018.
photo: Les Henry

The downside to the pretty blue/purple flowers was that the neighbours wondered why I was letting that Canada Thistle thrive! Not long after, DU staff came along to inspect and erected a sign that made it clear what I was up to.

Paul Hoekstra of Syngenta alerted me to the fact that clovers will be slower, but they will show up. By September 5 his wisdom was illustrated in spades. Phacelia is an annual, but it did set lots of seed that did germinate in a test I did inside over winter.

Full disclosure: What you are seeing are selected good parts of the two acres. I did not mix the seed well enough before spreading so parts were mainly phacelia, other parts more clover and some areas of weeds. Fortunately, the really good phacelia area was right next to the road!

The final operation in 2018 was to mow the entire site on October 18.

Phacelia podding and sweet clover doing well.
photo: Les Henry

2019 results

Drought was the order of the day in early 2019 with only 0.5 inches rain in May. A fair bit of clover, mostly sweet clover did come up as it had rooted well, but growth was slow.

Richard McBride of DU asked about a tour and I was not sure that there would be much to see. But by early June it was obvious that there would be a respectable stand of sweet clover so I happily agreed to a tour for June 20. The tour was cancelled because of drought. But, June 20 was our first good rain of the year — 1.6 inches nice gentle rain. If the tour had been held it would have been rained out. Such is the way of Mother Nature. On June 22 we received an additional 1.7 inches of rain so the sweet clover was off to the races.

The sweet clover stand on July 6, 2019.
photo: Les Henry

Wayne Leonhardt, a beekeeper neighbour, had seen the first phacelia in 2018 so he set up a hive of bees right next to the project. As it turned out, there was not much phacelia in 2019 but the bees, honey and wild, had a heyday in the sweet clover. There was a good crop of honey and I am enjoying the honey Wayne gave me.

There was a very large seed set of sweet clover. I did not have the appropriate equipment to swath and combine the seed. Had that seed been harvested those acres could have been my most profitable.

The future

If you have a little piece of ground that is a nuisance and grandpa that might like the challenge, or a 4-H girl or boy looking for a project, take a look at Operation Pollinator.

I am not sure about the future. There is more than enough Sweet Clover seed to ensure a stand next year. Also, I still have half the seed so could seed the entire plot again. Whatever the future, I have enjoyed the two years and learned a lot.


For more information about getting involved in Operation Pollinator, visit Syngenta’s website.
– Leeann Minogue

About the author

Columnist

Les Henry

J.L.(Les) Henry is a former professor and extension specialist at the University of Saskatchewan. He farms at Dundurn, Sask. He recently finished a second printing of “Henry’s Handbook of Soil and Water,” a book that mixes the basics and practical aspects of soil, fertilizer and farming. Les will cover the shipping and GST for “Grainews” readers. Simply send a cheque for $50 to Henry Perspectives, 143 Tucker Cres., Saskatoon, Sask., S7H 3H7, and he will dispatch a signed book.

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