Convo with Annemarie Baynton: Toronto approves Pollinator Strategy

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Here’s a recent conversation I had with Annemarie Baynton, senior environmental planner in the Environment and Energy Division of the City of Toronto. She has been the city’s point-person for facilitating the creation of Toronto’s Pollinator Protection Strategy, which was unanimously approved by the city council in April. The strategy is much more than simply declaring Toronto a “bee friendly” city; it puts significant focus on native bees, includes creating a system of green infrastructure to accommodate the needs of bees and other pollinators, invests money and resources in this effort, and is the result of community involvement and cross-department collaboration. Annemarie and her division, with the support of several partners and other city divisions, are now responsible for overseeing the implementation of the strategy. The transcript below has been lightly edited for length and readability.

Matt: Hi Annemarie.

Annemarie: Hi Matt.

Matt: If I remember correctly, you’ve only been involved with bees for a year. Only since the beginning of this project, right?

AM: That’s right.

Matt: So how did you get picked to shepherd this plan through the creation and approval process?

AM: I think it was my experience with other projects. I have a few different files here. I have the green roof file, urban agriculture, and local food. So it fit in with these other types of projects that are encouraging green infrastructure and growing things in an urban environment. And pollinator habitat creation can be incorporated into green roofs, it can be incorporated into urban agriculture. So it’s just a nice tie-in with all of those different projects.

And in our particular division, the Environment and Energy Office, under the Live Green Toronto banner, we have a long history of promoting initiatives to the public and doing public outreach. I believe we were looked upon to get the word out because that’s what we’re really good at.

Matt: The pollinator strategy was approved by the Toronto city council at the end of April?

AM: That’s correct.

Matt: In broad strokes, what got approved?

AM: City council approved the Pollinator Protection Strategy, which has a set of guiding principles, six key priority areas and 30 actions. And a couple of other things were tied into the report we took before council.

One of those things was to declare an official bee for Toronto. We chose, obviously, a native bee: Agapostemon virescens, a green metallic sweat bee. We did that because we wanted to raise awareness about Toronto’s diverse native bee community. And there were a few reasons we chose that bee. The first is that it’s a very common bee found in Toronto. It can be found in urban gardens but it’s also in natural wild areas. Another reason is that it’s really easy to identify. It’s got a metallic green head and thorax, and it’s abdomen is black and yellow stripes. It’s very unique looking.

But the last reason for choosing Agapostemon virescens is the most interesting of all. It’s a solitary bee but it nests in a communal fashion. It makes individual burrows underneath the ground but it invites other bees of its same species to build burrows using the same nest entrance. You can think of it like a condo, where the occupants enter through on common entrance but they all live in their individual units. This bee nests in that sort of fashion. And it’s unique in the sense that most bees will defend their nests against other bees but also their same species, whereas this bee is very welcoming to strangers or newcomers. We thought that was a really nice nod to Toronto, being a very welcoming city.

Agapostemon virescens_USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab_flickr_11894430286_e645db4a0e_o 960x
Agapostemon virescens / Photo: USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab

Another key item approved by council was the creation of a Pollinator Incentive Stewardship Program. It’s a grant program that provides modest financial support to community-led pollinator stewardship initiatives. There are two types of initiatives that would qualify for support. The first is habitat creation or enhancement. And the second is an educational initiative, like a workshop or a hands-on gardening demonstration — a way to spread the word about what pollinators need, how you can modify your gardening practices to help them, that kind of stuff.

So now that we have approval to create the incentive program, we’re working quickly to launch it this summer. We don’t want to miss the opportunity to get it going this year.

Matt: Was there any resistance at all to the plan? Were there questions about how this might impact city procedures or how it might be perceived publicly or anything like that?

AM: I think it was well received. I think the message is loud and clear that pollinators need our help, and that this is one of the roles that municipalities play. There wasn’t any opposition, so we’re really, really excited and pleased with the outcome.

Matt: Inevitably when you’re trying to make change like this, there are human hurdles or systematic hurdles that you run into. Were there any that it was important for you to overcome to make this possible?

AM: We did consult heavily with the public and that was really an important part of the process. We did two phases of public consultation. The first was just to get an understanding and an awareness of how are people feeling about the issue right now; whether they understand the issue. We posed the question, “How can the city help you create pollinator habitat?” And we got really great feedback. We then formulated a series of proposed actions and took that back to the public for additional feedback. We had over 7,000 participants in the public consultation process. So that was really key in terms of understanding what the barriers were and how we could overcome them.

And then the other piece I would mention is our reliance on the subject matter experts, how we really started first with them. We’re lucky in Toronto to have a community of academic experts and conservation biologists studying urban bees. We know quite a bit about our bees in Toronto and we were able to tap into that expertise. We didn’t start from zero; we had really sound, evidence-based advice from the experts before we even went out to the public. I think in that sense the process was unique and it set us up for success.

Matt: The incentive program is a really interesting component. Where did the initial contribution of $100,000 to provide grants for the community-led initiatives come from?

AM: The Live Green Toronto grants program ran for five years and funded a lot of different projects in the community. We were able to tap into the unused portion of those funds.

Matt: And what’s the vision for the projects that would be funded? It’s not just an on-going “we’re going to talk about bees” thing. It’s for actually creating something. Is that the idea?

AM: Yes. So if a proposal is to create a pollinator garden, we would want that established within a one-year period. Or if someone wanted to deliver workshops, we would want them delivered within a one-year period. It’s not intended to be funding for something five years down the road. It’s to establish projects within a one-year timeframe or less.

Matt: The idea being to achieve those actionable steps within the pollinator plan?

AM: Yes, it would be to support the key goals of the Pollinator Protection Strategy.

Matt: So within the strategy you have six key areas and each includes a list of actions. Obviously they’re all important, otherwise they wouldn’t be in the plan. But within those actions, are there one or two — or a particular section — that felt really important to have in plan? Because, yes, we know we need to create habitat. That’s a no-brainer. But was it essential to have a particular component put in there because it either makes everything else possible or because it drives other possible actions?

AM: Well I would say the partnership piece is crucial to our successful implementation of all the actions. We want to continue to partner and build relationships with community groups and the academic community that are already active in this area. There are so many great things that are already happening in Toronto, we don’t necessarily need to reinvent the wheel every time. It’s important to encourage and support community action that’s already underway. And that, I think, is key to achieving all of the other things: habitat creation, green corridors, the education piece, and then the fun part of celebrating our achievements.

Matt: One of the partnerships that I thought was interesting was the Aboriginal Committee. Can you talk to me a little bit about that? Is there actual First Nations wisdom that you want to include?

AM: We haven’t actually had a meeting of that committee yet, but it’s well underway in terms of making the appropriate connections. But I think it’s recognizing that there’s a wealth of indigenous knowledge that we can tap into. Lots of practices and approaches that we can incorporate when we’re implementing the strategy. In the Bees of Toronto book, there’s a story, a connection, to the indigenous community and bees. There is a history there that’s pretty interesting.

First Nation’s Perspectives on Bees

Bees have been considered as important by first nation’s communities for reasons additional to their ecological role. There are legends associated with the healing powers of bees and other insects and their causing of people coming back to life after death, just as the insects seemingly come back to life after winter. Bumble bees are among those invertebrates that have been considered by shamans as “helping spirits” and bees and other small organisms are thought to have the powers to connect different levels of reality and mediate among them. Fast flying insects are thought to give invulnerability through transferring the difficulties associated with hitting the insect to the person wearing an amulet that incorporates bodies of insects. A bee accompanied by its entire brood is considered to provide greater vitality, increasing longevity and providing greater prowess in fisticuffs. Similarly, the incorporation of bees into clothing is thought to make childbirth easier.

from “Bees of Toronto: A Guide to Their Remarkable World”

Matt: I have one more question for you. Is there a timeline in mind for accomplishing everything that Toronto wants to accomplish with pollinators? I mean, ideally, we wouldn’t need a pollinator plan. We’d all just be doing all of this stuff, right?

AM: Hmm. That’s a tough one to answer. We do have an implementation plan where we want to get most of these things going this year and continue into next year. But I don’t think it stops. I don’t think this is something we do in a year and then move on to something else. It’s going to be incorporated into all of our future decision making. And hopefully through outreach to the community it will continue there. I don’t think it’s anything that can just be achieved in a year or two and we’re done with it. It’s something that will always be a priority for the city, working it into all of our other existing policies and practices. Our green infrastructure policies, our purchasing policies, our planting policies, and that kind of thing. I see this as an on-going, long-term project.

Matt: Thanks, Annemarie.

AM: Any time. It’s always a pleasure chatting with you, Matt.