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Niagara landfill transforms into farm for bees

The Niagara College beekeeping program is doing research for an assessment to convert landfill into pollinator farms.

Julianne Oliveira is a student in Niagara College's beekeeping program, the only program of its kind in Canada.

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Julianne Oliveira is a student in Niagara College's beekeeping program, the only program of its kind in Canada.

In the shadow of blue and yellow trucks moving garbage to a landfill and compost factory nearby, two women walk up and down a dusty path at the edge of a closed landfill in Niagara Falls, sweeping the air for bees and flies with big white nets. Their pockets are filled with test tubes where they stow away honey bees, beetles and other unidentified pollinator bugs they catch.

Kiera Newman and Julianne Oliveira sweep the site every other Wednesday for four hours, in one-hour increments, and send the bugs to a research lab at the University of Guelph to be identified and recorded.

Newman, a professor at Niagara College, and her student Oliveira are members of Eastern Canada’s first commercial beekeeping program. The three-semester program, which started in January 2017, coincides with the normal life cycle of a honey bee.

Their research at Walker Industries — the company that owns the landfill they sweep — is part of a pre-assessment to convert 20 hectares of the almost 70 hectares of landfill land into pollinator farms and help to restore pollinator habitat and conserve pollinating species.

“We’ll be able to see what happens before the bee hives are put in and before they plant their pollinator gardens and crops,” Newman said. “By next year we’ll be able to see how the pollinators are reacting.”

“We have so much land, and we have no use for it really,” said Laura Bratley, a project manager at Walker Industries. “So why not turn it into a pollinator habitat?”

This partnership between industry and academia is a response to the Ontario government’s Pollinator Health Action Plan — a plan to help protect, restore and enhance a distressed species that helps provide one-third of our diet.

Released on Dec. 16, 2016, the plan includes steps to “restore, enhance and protect one million acres of pollinator habitat in Ontario,” while also supporting efforts to combat crop disease and the use of neonicotinoid pesticides — two factors that have severely stressed the species at a time agricultural production is rising to meet increasing populations and changing appetites.

Julianne Oliveira and her fellow Niagara College students spend four hour every other Wednesday collecting pollinators to be sent to a research lab at the University of Guelph.

Torstar News Service

Julianne Oliveira and her fellow Niagara College students spend four hour every other Wednesday collecting pollinators to be sent to a research lab at the University of Guelph.

The Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs and the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry are working on a plan for habitat restoration, which includes the longer-term action to create pollinator farms at waste management sites like Walker Industries.

Right now, the Ontario government estimates that 17,000 hectares of land are available in the landfills (both operating and closed) owned by various municipal and private companies.

The Walker Industries’ eastern landfill opened in 1982 and stayed in operation until 2009-10, when it reached capacity and was covered with a clay cap. A landfill has to be managed through its “contaminating life” before anything can be done with it, said Tim Murphy, vice-president of Walker Industries’ Environmental Performance sector. This includes actively monitoring the gases emitted by the buried trash.

“What we’ve been able to do here is while we’re actively managing the landfill in post-closure we wanted to assess the potential for top soil to be placed on top of the cover and used for agriculture,” Murphy said.

“So we’re looking at this as basically a long-term experiment to see about the continued reuse of landfills . . . so that it actually has some productive use,” he said

Part of Walker Industries' landfill site in Niagara is being studied by Niagara College beekeeping students as pollinator habitat.

Torstar News Service

Part of Walker Industries' landfill site in Niagara is being studied by Niagara College beekeeping students as pollinator habitat.

Walker Industries is in a unique position because it has both a closed and an active landfill quite close to each other. Local farmers started cultivating the closed landfill in June, after being delayed by the rainy season, and will plant winter wheat in the fall and red clover next spring.

At the same time, Newman and Oliveira, and the nine other students in the Niagara College beekeeping program, will be monitoring and researching different aspects of pollinator life. One of the ongoing studies involves placing blue, white and yellow bowls filled with some water and fragrance-free soap in the middle of the landfill to see which pollinators are attracted to which colour.

“They fly in and die and we can capture them to see what the abundance and diversity of native pollinators are in the area,” said Newman.

It’ll be a few years until the data from this research and that happening at the University of Guelph will be completed, she said. And it’ll be a year before the landfill at Walker Industries turns into a full-grown pollinator farm.

The important thing, says Oliveira, is that the research is addressing the food security and ecosystem that pollinators vitally contribute to and need. Walker and Niagara College have just added the first hives near the landfill, with more to come. “(Pollinators) need habitats if they’re going to survive.”

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