You may have heard it said that just about every third bite of food you take was made possible by a bee. Bees are required in the production of everything from apples to zucchini, and even important cattle feeds such as alfalfa require bees for pollination.
To meet high demand over the last 50 years, growers have relied on trucking in thousands of hives of non-native honey bees to pollinate crops such as blueberries and cranberries. But with honeybee colonies now facing sudden declines and hive-rental costs soaring, there’s a renewed focus on establishing habitat for native pollinators.
It’s a steamy summer day on the Down East blueberry barrens. The sun is just starting to show through a persistent drizzle, but thousands of little hovering insects are keeping busy on wildflowers.
“Look at all the pollen they’ve collected already. On their legs, see that little yellow puffball? That’s where they store then they go back to the hive,” says Bruce Hall, an agronomist with Wyman’s of Maine, a leader in the world’s wild blueberry industry and a pioneer in the practice of weaving native bee habitat into its production acreage.
It’s not the time of year when growers typically get excited over bees — in fact, harvest is just starting — but Hall is thrilled to see that, despite the damp morning, native bumblebees are tumbling over the yarrow, asters and fireweed, and lots of tiny little pollinators are at it as well.
“I don’t want to get too close with my finger, but you see it? That’s a bee. Most people have never even seen that in their lives,” Hall says. “It’s really small, I mean, is that an eighth of an inch long? It’s definitely no more than a quarter, that’s for sure. Here’s another one here — different species actually. It’s got orange on its thorax. All kinds of them coming through here right now. All kinds of them.”
It’s just one of hundreds of native bees that have buzzed over the fields for thousands of years. Rather than converting this patch of wildflowers to fruit production, Wyman’s is allowing it to remain in a tangled mess of weeds, with some scrubby trees and dead branches brought and dumped nearby to complete the scene.
“What’s becoming more and more evident is the need for habitat — both food and shelter for bees. A healthy pollen and nectar diet for all species of bees allows for an individual to be more resilient, whether that’s to pathogens, pesticides or anything. This is fantastic pollinator habitat right here. And this happens to be right in the middle of one of our production fields,” Hall says.
He estimates that about 25 percent of the crop in the surrounding area was pollinated, for free, by native bees. With literally hundreds of acres dedicated to bees and butterflies, Wyman’s of Maine is being held up as an example of successful bee conservation by the newly launched New England Pollinator Partnership.
But for many smaller growers, the costs of this new approach may be out of reach.
“Enhancing or installing pollinator habitat is not cheap and it’s not easy, and so you really need some quality technical and financial assistance quite often for those things,” says Tony Jenkins with Natural Resources Conservation Service, an arm of the USDA and one of the partners in a 25-year agreement that provides federal funds and technical guidance to landowners in New England who need help developing pollinator habitat.
Jenkins says the partnership will also provide some protection from unintended consequences. If, for example, a farmer’s conservation efforts result in the attraction of a protected or endangered species, such as the rusty patched bumblebee, Jenkins says the farmer would be protected by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from potential negative consequences.
“Basically we’re trying to protect them from the no-good-deed-goes-unpunished kind of situation,” he says.
But the larger goal of the project is to protect and preserve all the native bee species that could serve as pollinators.
“In Maine we have 278, more or less, species of native bees, and none of them are honeybees,” says Eric Venturini, a conservationist and biologist with the Xerces Society, which is also involved with the partnership.
Venturini says as beloved as the honeybee is, and as valuable as it is to agriculture, it can be hard to work with in the New England states. For example, honeybees won’t fly when it’s chilly or drizzly. Native bees, however, will often venture out in less than ideal circumstances, and Venturini says if climate studies are correct, we may need them even more in the future.
“Some recent research has found that we’re actually experiencing fewer good pollination days in the spring here in Maine, which of course implicates the importance of native pollinators,” he says.
The New England Pollinator Partnership says its goal is to reach at least 1,200 landowners to collectively provide at least 7,500 acres of new pollinator habitat.