Pollinators: Small size, big Impact

Almost everything in the plant kingdom depends on the existence of pollinating insects.  Many species of trees depend on wind dispersing their pollen to other trees but almost all flowering plants need insect pollinators. Approximately 80 percent of all flowering plant species are specialized for pollination by animals, mostly insects, and they affect 35 percent of the world’s crop production. Much of the campus is covered in grasses and other flowering plants along with some species of trees that require insect pollination.

One of the many indigenous wasp species that are important pollinators

Many people have heard about the decline of monarch butterflies and the perilous plight of honeybees. When these much-celebrated insects began to disappear from the landscape, people took notice. At the same time, scientists around the world were beginning to document the dramatic decline of a multitude of insect species. From fireflies and bumblebees to less-alluring critters like beetles and worms, invertebrate species have declined 45 per cent over the past forty years.

According to the David Suzuki Foundation, reckless use of pesticides and transformation of farmland into bleak, massive monocultures have displaced and harmed countless species. Coupled with the loss of natural habitat due to sprawling human-built landscapes and the changing climate, this is putting insects at risk, according to many experts.

Cities and suburbs can be surprisingly great habitat for insects, as long as we provide enough food, habitat and shelter.

More than 800 species of wild bee can be found in Canada, and at least a couple hundred live in our major urban areas. By changing how we build and manage our communities, we can play an important role in bringing bees, butterflies and other essential insects back from the brink.

Monarch Butterfly

During the 2017 Ecology Day, Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue announced that it is now a Monarch Friendly City of the butterflyway program of the David Suzuki Foundation.

By signing the “Mayors’ Monarch Pledge”, Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue is now part of an international grouping of mayors and local government leaders committed to protecting populations of this insect by contributing to the restoration of the monarch’s habitats and reducing pesticide use so that this magnificent butterfly can prosper again in Quebec and throughout the continent.

If you see a Monarch butterfly in September or October, it will probably be one of the butterflies that will make the amazing migration all the way down to Mexico, which can be up to a staggering 4,800 kilometres. It was a Canadian couple named Fred and Norah Urquhart who discovered in 1975 that most of the North American population of Monarch butterflies wintered on about a dozen volcanic mountains in central Mexico’s Sierra Madres. When John Abbott College opened its doors in 1971, the precise location had still not been pinpointed.


There are a number of projects on the campus that have been created to help pollinating insects including the pollinator garden where you are now. Planted in the Spring of 2022, it was a project spearheaded by students, with support from WWF Canada. The plan is to expand it. Hawthorn and Serviceberry trees have been planted that flower with sweet nectar in May and a number of plants are present including Bee Baum and Lemon Balm.  If you see any honeybees on the flowers, they may be the bees from John Abbott College’s rooftop hive which is on the Casgrain building roof and operated by Alveole. In the Fall, the honey is extracted and sold to raise money for the Student Assistance Fund. Some studies have shown that too many urban beehives reduce the pollen and nectar available for native bees, but that is not an issue in places like Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue that have large natural areas for native bees and which is in an agricultural zone as well. Students have also installed native bee habitats near the vegetable garden close to the AME building.

There are a number of bumble bee species on the campus and any of these species can be examined in the collections of the Lyman Museum in the Centennial Centre building which is part of the Macdonald Campus of McGill University. An interesting fact about native wasps and bees is that in the spring what re-emerges are only the fertile queens that overwintered. All of the other individual bees and wasps do not survive the winter. And the first bees to emerge in the spring are the bumblebee queens. The queens will look for a suitable place to start their colony (usually a hole in the ground or in a tree stump) and lay between 8-10 eggs, and then 20 to 30 days later these eggs will hatch and then develop into worker bees. The cycle will begin again and by the end of the summer there are often well over two hundred bumblebees in one colony.

One of the birds that eat many of the pollinating insects are Chimney Swifts. Chimney Swifts have been nesting in the abandoned chimneys of Brittain Hall for decades and people from the Canadian Wildlife Service have actually been counting them for over 10 years. Like many aerial insectivores their numbers have been declining significantly and unfortunately in the last 5 years the number of Chimney Swifts on the campus have declined significantly. The birds fly overhead at a height that is higher than the campus buildings so people don’t notice them but they make quite a pleasant chatter with their calls. The reason they fly so high in the air to catch insects is that the sky is often full of insects in the summer months. And there are insects at heights between 60 and 600 metres! Researchers have even found organisms that don’t have wings at these altitudes like tiny spiders and caterpillars (wafted aloft on strands of silk spun by the animals themselves). So there are a lot of insects for the swifts to eat even if there are less than there were 20 years ago. The swifts winter in South America and return here starting in May.

Content for this page was made possible by the intercollegiate Campus Biodiversity Network Entente Canada-Quebec grant 2022-2023, spearheaded by Vanier College.  This project has been funded in part by Quebec’s ministère de l’Enseignement supérieur, through contributions from the Canada-Québec Agreement on Minority-Language Education and Second-Language Instruction

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