Honeybees and the landscape

Studying under Professor Frank Drummond at the University of Maine, Brianne Du Clos is a PhD candidate studying how bees use the landscape and what types of land offer good forage resources. She also happens to be a beekeeper and a member of the Knox-Lincoln County Beekeepers group, and she presented her research to the beekeepers at the November 2015 meeting of the Maine State Beekeepers’ Association.

runamuk honeybee forage mapWhat’s a landscape to a bee?

According to Brianne, to a honeybee the landscape encompasses anything it can fly to. Typically it is depicted by a circle because the bees are flying from a central location─their hive─and encompasses anything the bee can potentially fly to.

How far to honeybees fly?

“As far as they have to to find food.” She admits that this is one of those questions where you can ask 10 different beekeepers the same question and get 10 different answers, but Brianne went on to say that studies have been done, and we know now that  the average foraging distance is actually about 3.5 miles. Of course they’ll travel much farther when food is scarce, but they’ll also die much faster when they have to travel long distances for food, and that is not sustainable for the health of the hive. Brianne says most bees prefer to forage a little less than 3.5 miles.

So where do you put your hives?

Good forage resources

The idea is to situate your apiary within range of some good forage resources for your bees. There needs to be a consistent bloom throughout the season with a diversity of flowering plants─wildflowers, woody shrubs, and flowering trees like maples and willows for that early spring food source. It’s an added bonus, says Brianne, if that landscape also includes some kind of water source, so that if a bee has just flown 3 miles for food she has somewhere to re-hydrate herself, rest and rejuvenate before making the journey back to the hive.

What types of land offer good forage resources?

As a landscape ecologist Brianne is interested in how bees use the land, what types of land offer good forage resources, and has conducted studies of Maine’s landscape to answer that very question. She talked about a land-cover study she did just this past summer to find out what kind of landscape bees seem to prefer the most.

Brianne sampled habitat in four different parts of the state: Waldo/Knox, Washington county, Hancock County, and in Orono and Old Town. She looked at 8 types of land:

  1. Agricultural and grasslands
  2. Blueberry fields
  3. Coniferous forests
  4. Deciduous and mixed forests
  5. Along the edges of deciduous forests
  6. Urban and developed areas
  7. Emergent wetlands
  8. Wetlands/water

The larger portion of bees, Brianne found, were located in the emergent wetlands. With tons of forage available in the form of woody flowering shrubs, grasses, wildflowers, winterberry, elderflower, invasive honeysuckle, marsh skullcap, jewelweed, raspberries and blueberries, along with the availability of water it proved to be the preferred habitat for bees.

Brianne visited each site 3 times over the course of the season; early summer, mid summer and later summer, looking at the wild bee community and what was blooming.

How honeybees find food

Upon emerging from the hive honeybees perform their initial orientation flight, and they search the air for floral odors. When they find forage, they will fly only in that direction until they can’t find anymore. Brianne recommends using Google Maps to locate potential forage resources and to better help beekeepers site their apiaries. Taking a snapshot of the potential landscape allows the beekeeper to assess the habitat before actually setting up his or her apiary. And even if your apiary is already established, this is a great tool to get a better idea of where your girls are and where your major nectar sources are.

Brianne says shes also curious to learn if the size of the forage site  matters, and how big does it have to be to be an important floral source?

Using her research, Brianne has been developing a webtool called BeeMapper that will allow blueberry growers to locate potential foraging resources for the native bee community on their farms. This tool has the adaptability to be useful to beekeepers as well and Brianne invited anyone interested in trying it out to contact her at the University of Maine.

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