Bee at Ferrier property (Photo by Brent Calver)

Bee at Ferrier property (Photo by Brent Calver)

Bring back our bees: The Gambling Lake pollinator project

Cutting holes for shrubs at Gambling Lake (Photo by NCC)

Cutting holes for shrubs at Gambling Lake (Photo by NCC)

In recent years, the decline in the number of pollinators across the world has been widely documented. At the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC), we are particularly concerned about our native pollinators because they are so important to the overall health of our wild spaces.

While NCC has always protected and managed natural areas for the benefit of native species, in some locations we have decided to take it a step further and enhance them specifically for native pollinators.

One great example of this is the pollinator project at Gambling Lake, which began in 2016. Gambling Lake is a quarter-section of land east of Edmonton, acquired in 2013 by NCC, in partnership with the Alberta Fish and Game Association. The property consists of a lake, forests and open grassland.

The pollinator restoration project began by enlisting the help of local experts and by visiting other pollinator enhancement sites for inspiration. NCC staff and local experts decided that the grasslands on Gambling Lake would be an ideal setting for the pollinator project. The grassland area had likely been cleared and replanted for agriculture several decades ago. With the area sitting idle over the past few decades, there has been significant re-naturalization of the grasslands. Many native species were present when NCC took ownership of the property.

The Gambling Lake pollinator project has several goals: to enhance habitat for pollinators, to experiment with multiple types of restoration efforts and to provide a display site for future pollinator enhancements.

Agroforestry Woodlot Extension Society (AWES), Agriculture Canada and NCC’s own science experts worked together to come up with a plan.

Laying out the planting plan at Gambling Lake (Photo by NCC)

Laying out the planting plan at Gambling Lake (Photo by NCC)

In the first year of the project, five plots were selected and marked out for the project. These plots were then restored to their native states. Four different planting methods were created for these plots, and the fifth plot went untouched.

On each of the four plots, a combination of mowing and weed spraying was used to remove weeds. To limit the regrowth of new invasive species, a control technique called solarization was used. Solarization consists of covering the soil with a clear plastic tarp for several weeks during a hot spell when the soil will receive maximum direct sunlight.

This simple, non-chemical technique works similar to a greenhouse by trapping heat and encouraging native plants to grow. This process also kills off multiple species of weeds that require more moisture to survive.

After six weeks of solarization, the plots were ready for planting. One site received native herbs, trees and shrubs that were known to be pollinator favourites. This site was named “heavy hitters.” The second site was a “dog’s breakfast,” as it was a mixture of many different herbs, trees and shrubs. The “tree and shrub” plot, the third site, received only woody species, and the fourth, called “herb only,” included only herbaceous species, which are plants that have no persistent woody stem like a typical wildflower. 

In the first year of planting, only shrubs and trees were planted in the first three plots. Holes were cut in the plastic for planting the shrubs and trees (except for in the case of the "tree and shrub" plot, which had all of the plastic removed). Leaving the plastic down where the herbs were going to be planted kept the weed species at bay until the second year.

Shrubs planted with mulch mats at Gambling Lake (Photo by NCC)

Shrubs planted with mulch mats at Gambling Lake (Photo by NCC)

Ground-nesting bee boxes were then installed around each of the four plots. A pollinator monitoring protocol was developed and implemented in the second year of the project.

Planting the native trees and shrubs took many days. Professional tree planters, NCC staff, volunteers and AWES staff took part in the planting events. That fall, NCC staff and members of the Edmonton Native Plant Group collected wildflower seeds from Gambling Lake. These wildflower seeds were raised in a greenhouse during the winter by the Edmonton Native Plant Group. By using seeds from one of the sites and the nearby area gave the plants a better chance of surviving when they were planted back into the plots.

The following summer, volunteers planted approximately 200 of those plants harvested from the property, as well as  other native flowers that were grown for this project.

The next phase of the pollinator restoration project was monitoring the property to establish a baseline pollinator population.

Between May 2017 and September 2017, volunteers went out twice a month to observe and record pollinator species seen using the plots. The data collected will determine which of the five plots attracted the most pollinators and establish what pollinator species are in the area. This information will help NCC to inform future pollinator enhancements on our own properties, and serve as a demonstration site for others in the community who want to do their own pollinator enhancement project.

The project is now in its third year. This phase will consist of ongoing monitoring and species surveys for pollinators, replacing any trees and shrubs that have not survived and ongoing maintenance of the plots (watering and weeding).

To sign up to help monitor the pollinator project, please contact Zoë Arnold, NCC’s Conservation Volunteers program manager by email at zoe.arnold@natureconservancy.ca.

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