Column: bee time and litter

‘We can promote diversity of plants on our farms and ranches’

Should ranchers care about bees and plant litter?

I was given a treasure of a book for Christmas which I am just now reading. Mark Winston wrote Bee Time: lessons from the hive in 2014 after having been retired from a teaching and research position for many years.

He is sharing his wisdom about the state of agriculture and human health.

In a previous column, I had just returned from the annual meeting of BC Cattlemen and the associated education day. At that event, the word “litter” was uttered by several of the guest speakers.

Litter is the plant and animal residue left over on our agricultural lands. This material in sufficient abundance and especially when trampled close to the soil the surface stimulates biological activity.

This feeding of soil microorganisms in turn feeds the plants we want for our crops.

Cover by dead plants wicks up moisture, falling as rain and insulates the ground during times of extreme heat so biological life can thrive.

This speaks to not overgrazing and recognizes that leaving plant material creates more growth for the next time of use.

This is hard in times of shortages, but sustaining our crop production needs this investment in organic material.

Biodiversity is the benefit both below and above ground. It is the above ground biodiversity which helps provide the habitat and food for pollinators.

No one needs to be reminded that pollinated plants produce more of the seed or fruit, which is nutritionally rich.

Here is where the message from Mark Winston comes in. By creating monocultures of certain plants like corn, we created a situation where those crops can be threatened with collapse.

He has summarized much of the literature on how the accumulation of pesticides has created not just added effects (little effects adding one after the other).

The synergies of things like antibiotics, pesticides and diseases can creates exponential impacts.

While we are coming to know more about the synergies of drugs used for human disease treatment, we know much less about the synergies amonstt what we are placing on our crops.

Colony collapse with bees is one of these synergistic impacts.

We don’t need to feel hopeless, though, because we can in our own little way, promote the diversity of plants on our farms and ranches, along the edges of waterways, fields and forest.

Let nature be a little and we reap the benefits of more and different pollinators a including the honey bee.

Wendell Berry, the well-known American writer about agriculture has said we all have the power to makes things better today and tomorrow.

Don’t give up or give in to despair about threats like colony collapse disorder with honey bees.

So where researchers in the beef industry talk about leaving litter, they literally mean feed the diversity in the soil. They create the vast array of free nutrients for our crops and animal feed.

David Zirnhelt is a rancher in the Cariboo and member of the Cariboo Cattlemen’s Association. He is also chair of the Advisory Committee for the Applied Sustainable Ranching Program at Thompson Rivers University Williams Lake Campus.

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